Monday, August 22, 2011

The Undeniable Advantage of Juror Questionnaires over Voir Dire

For more than 25 years, it has been apparent to many litigation consultants that a questionnaire is a more effective, efficient, and valid vehicle for eliciting TRUTHFUL responses to issues of concern to attorneys during jury selection. Now a recently published research report confirms what we have believed, and adds some additional detail to the comparative advantages of jury questionnaires over verbal voir dire in jury selection.

This latest research reported here [(Flores, D.M. (2011). Methods of expanded voir dire and written questionnaires: Experimental results on juror self-disclosure and implications for trial practice. Court Call, Summer, 2011, pp. 1-6.)] is notable for comparing answers on a jury questionnaire to 3 different kinds of voir dire: group voir dire (the most common practice in the US), individual questions to jurors seated with the panel in court, individual questioning of prospective jurors with only judge and attorneys present in court, and finally, individual interviews of prospective jurors in a separate room with judge and attorneys present.

Compared to information provided by prospective jurors on a jury questionnaire, jurors FAILED to provide candid answers to group voir dire 67% of the time, to individual questions from a judge 50% of the time, to individual questions from attorneys 33% of the time, and to private voir dire questions away from other panel members, 20% of the time. Most importantly, jurors were willing to (and did) provide the information withheld during voir dire on juror questionnaires.

The implications of these findings are profound for Texas family law attorneys (Texas is one of two states with jury trials in divorce and custody cases.). As Texas courts have become more crowded with the increase in population over the last 20 years, judges are increasingly limiting voir dire in jury selection to group and individual questions of the panel in court, with time limits of one hour per side becoming a common practice. Many judges are reluctant to allow the use of jury questionnaires, while some are adamantly opposed and refuse to allow their use.

This new research may lead to a new avenue of appeal in family law jury cases. When 2/3 of jurors are withholding relevant information from attorneys during group voir dire, the judge's failure to allow more valid and reliable ways of learning about the attitudes of prospective jurors (when juror questionnaires have been requested and denied by the court) raises the question of whether parties have been denied the due process to which they are entitled under the Constitution.

Jury consultants have been teaching attorneys about the barriers (physical, emotional, social, and psychological) to complete and honest self-disclosure by prospective jurors during voir dire in the courtroom for many years, and suggesting strategies to overcome those barriers and make it possible for panel members to be completely honest. We (litigation consultants) have long recognized that questionnaires were the best solution to this problem, and the new experimental research confirms what trial practice has demonstrated many times: Jury questionnaires have no equal in the search for the 'truth' about juror attitudes.

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