Adequacy of Instructions to the Jury: I

In view of frequent judicial complaints about “instructions by the acre,” it may be appropriate to begin with a short justification for an article bearing a title which might appear to suggest an antithetical problem, that is, the existence of a question as to the adequacy of instructions to the jury. To this end one might repeat the assertion that the verdict of a jury which is not instructed as to the fundamental law of the case is “crackerbarrel justice.” If this is true, it certainly is also true that the mere number of instructions given is no guarantee of their adequacy. Furthermore, the general practice of submitting too many instructions has sometimes caused a reaction to an even less desirable extreme-the complete waiver of instructions (where permissible) by stipulation. In Missouri, for instance, that practice became so prevalent that the supreme court of that state had to work out an unusual solution, as will later appear. Finally, the very giving of such great numbers of instructions is often rooted in fear on the part of the trial judge that refusal of any correct and applicable request may be a violation of his Duty to Charge.

“Duty to Charge” is the rubric under which many of the cases considered herein may be found. For the purposes of this article, however, the phrase “adequacy of the charge” is more accurately descriptive. It has wider scope than the conventional “duty to charge,” which, furthermore, has been found to have no fixed meaning, being used to signify anything from a semipoetic, unformed ideal to the rule of reversible error for failure to read all written requests which are correct and applicable. At its best the conventional phrase may indicate solicitude for thorough presentation of the issues and the law to the jury. At its worst it may simply be one of the many spikes in the abatis which was erected in the American trial court’s path in the nineteenth century.