Big Trial News: Illinois Jurors Will Be Able to Ask Questions of Witnesses As of July 1st: New Illinois Rule 243

Big Trial News: Illinois Jurors Will Be Able to Ask Questions of Witnesses As of July 1st: New Illinois Rule 243

Jury trials are a cornerstone of the American system of justice, and how a jury trial proceeds is known to almost everyone, whether they’ve participated in an actual trial or if they’ve just watched a lot of television.  From jury duty to traffic tickets to Perry Mason or Law & Order reruns, most of us understand that a jury is picked and then that group sets silently in a special section of the courtroom where they watch and listen but do not participate in the presentation of the case.

This silent grouping of the jury has been changing over the past few years and in many states as well as the federal system, civil juries are able to ask questions during the trial process.

Illinois jurors could not do so.   Until this summer.

As of July 1, 2012, Illinois jurors will be able to ask their own questions of witnesses in civil jury trials.

This will impact all sorts of civil cases, including wrongful death cases as well as all sorts of personal injury matters: serious personal injury cases; transportation injury claims; and work-related injury trials.

Illinois Supreme Court Okays New Illinois Rule 243

How Illinois civil trials proceed depends upon the procedures set up and approved by the Illinois Supreme Court, and the Illinois Supreme Court has issued its formal release that new Rule 243 is effective around 60 days from now (07/01/12).

You can read the Supreme Court’s full release here.

Here’s how it works….

First, a juror who has a question for a witness will submit that question to the bailiff who will hand that paper to the judge.

Nothing happens then.

Instead, the judge will hold the proceedings once the lawyers are done with their questioning of the witness (don’t expect the judge to jump up and stop the trial immediately if a juror submits a question).

Then the judge will gather the lawyers for both sides, and they’ll go into the judge’s chambers to discuss the question and the judge will rule on any objections that the plaintiffs or defendants may have to having the witness asked the particular question.  Everyone else in the courtroom will be on break, on standby – waiting for the attorneys and the judge and the court reporter (who will be taking everything down for the court record, in the event of an appeal) – to return.

What sort of objections could there be to the juror’s question?

Objections could be either to form or substance.  Leading questions won’t fly as worded.  Questions that aren’t relevant won’t be okay.  Ones that go into areas that have been determined to be outside the evidence boundaries in pretrial motions will not be asked.

Objections can result in the question being tossed, being asked as written, or modified with language approved by the trial judge.

Why do this?

Jurors sometimes want to know things, and until now, they didn’t get to ask questions until they were gathered together in the jury room for deliberations.  Now, they can ask while the witness is on the stand.  Also, some attorneys point out, it will help jurors stay interested in the proceedings – juror days are long, and minds can daydream, they argue.

From Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride:

“Based on the comments of those who have used or seen the procedure at trials, such a rule enhances juror engagement, juror comprehension and attention to the proceeding and gives jurors a better appreciation for our system of justice.”

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