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Language of Jury Instructions

  1. Bethany K. Dumas

Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0630

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics

How to Cite

Dumas, B. K. 2012. Language of Jury Instructions. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 NOV 2012


Jury instructions, also called jury charges, jury directions, or simply instructions, charges, or directions, are the legal guidelines provided by judges to jurors at trial, civil and criminal, usually at the conclusion of all evidence. Their function is to instruct juries in how to reach decisions or findings of fact based upon the evidence presented. Jury trials are distinguished from bench trials, in which judges make all decisions. Jurors are the triers of fact in jury trials, and their decisions must be based on the evidence presented at trial by following the law that is provided in the instructions. Thus the communicative effectiveness of the instructions is crucial to a fair trial. Jury trials are not used in all countries today, but they are used, in both civil and criminal cases, in most adversarial or common law jurisdictions: Britain (though not Scotland), Continental Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as a few other countries (those influenced by colonialism). Jurors must make decisions by deciding which witnesses are believable, which ones appear to be telling the truth, and how much weight to give to testimony—all in the context of the legal rules that specify exactly how to apply the law to the evidence. Jurors make decisions about blame and guilt, and degrees of blame and guilt, based on the evidence that they have heard and the instructions that they have received. Because the instructions must explain relevant law, they must contain some legal language. Legal language has long been recognized as difficult for nonlawyers (Mellinkoff, 1963; Steele & Thornburg, 1988; Tiersma, 1999), and jury instructions can present special difficulties because of their linguistic complexity and length, sometimes hundreds of pages. They may contain definitions of special legal terms like mens rea (criminal intent) and res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”). Comprehension difficulties faced by jurors are well documented, particularly in the USA, where as early as 1979 (Charrow & Charrow), empirical research demonstrated that long, complex sentences and certain grammatical structures as well as specialized terms created severe difficulties for jurors. Some reform efforts have succeeded in improving comprehensibility, but there is consensus among linguists and other social scientists, as well as many judges and lawyers, that jury instructions used in most adversarial or common law jurisdictions need further improvement. This entry briefly describes the nature of jury instruction in the courtroom, traces the history of jury instructions and reform efforts, then illustrates comprehension problems and summarizes needed revisions.


  • discourse analysis;
  • forensic linguistics;
  • language for specific purposes;
  • vocabulary