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The state’s Judicial Council pushed aside more than 60 years of civil court instructions Wednesday when it approved new words designed to make the law easier for jurors to understand. The council adopted a court rule recommending that judges no longer use the Book of Approved Jury Instructions, which has been the standard since the 1940s. Instead, the council now wants judges to use a new set of civil jury instructions that are written in plainer, more conversational English. The new instructions were written by a special 29-member task force that the Judicial Council appointed in 1997 in response to a nationwide movement to better explain the law to laypeople. The task force estimates it spent 1,100 days on the project. First District Court of Appeal Justice Carol Corrigan, chair of the task force, made light of the long process. “As many of you may recall, the council created the task force during what seemed to be the middle of the Coolidge administration,” she said. The civil instructions are scheduled to be available by September. Task force members hope they cut down on appeals and make jury service less painful. Like BAJI, the new instructions will not be mandatory, and they could be changed as time goes on. Each trial presents a unique set of circumstances, and judges still need leeway to tailor what they tell jurors, said Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice James Ward. He is the vice chairman of the task force and led the 18 members who worked on civil instructions. Of course, civil instructions are only half the deal. The task force is still revising what criminal juries are told. That job is about 60 percent complete, and the task force expects to finish in 2005. The task force is not rewriting BAJI or other sources of instructions. Rather, it’s starting from the ground up. As it works, the task force makes its proposed language available for public comment. There are a couple of reasons why the criminal instructions are taking longer to write, said Corrigan, who is also leading the criminal revision. For one thing, criminal instructions are more sensitive. “Most” criminal appeals at least mention jury instructions, whereas civil appeals usually don’t deal with them at all, Corrigan said. Also, she said, much of what is told to criminal juries is decided by statute, which is constantly revised in the Legislature and interpreted in appellate opinions. “That’s what makes the law a living enterprise is that it’s constantly evolving,” Corrigan said. “That makes it difficult to take a snapshot and tell that to juries.” The criminal instructions are also taking longer because the task force has been getting more feedback than it did with the civil language. Although the council voted unanimously, some in the judiciary opposed the task force’s work. Critics said the law should be discussed in a lofty and formal way and are resistant to what they see as dumbing it down. Others, Corrigan said, see translating statutes into easier-to-understand English as simply too risky. Those critics argue that if a statute isn’t translated correctly, “then cases are going to be overturned on appeal,” Corrigan explained. But ignorant jurors cause problems, too, and that’s exactly what the Judicial Council wants to avoid. A study on legal comprehension showed that many people have trouble understanding terms like “burden of proof, impeach, admissible evidence and inference,” according to a council report. Earlier this year, the council’s efforts to come up with new instructions won the 2003 Burton Award for Outstanding Reform, a national award given for clear legal writing. William Burton is the author of Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. LexisNexis/Matthew Bender will publish the new instructions. In other business Wednesday, the Judicial Council accepted a report on another topic relating to access to the courts. In February, the council formed a group of plaintiffs and defense lawyers to look at how the 1986 Trial Court Delay Reduction Act is implemented by judges, especially in light of a bill by the Legislature last year that gave plaintiffs a significant time advantage in summary judgment motions. Among other things, the group recommends that the council change court rules to give more “explicit criteria” for setting civil trials and change the way courts evaluate continuances. The proposed changes would need to go through committees and public comment before anything is implemented. The council posts proposed rule changes at its Web site, www.courtinfo.ca.gov/invitationstocomment/.

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