“Voir dire” is a phase used in the jury selection process in some British and American style legal systems. During voir dire, potential jurors can be examined to determine whether their backgrounds or any biases they may have might disqualify them from actual sitting on the jury for a trial. The phrase literally means “to see, to say” in French, but probably derives from the Latin verum dicere (“to speak the truth”), the oath jurors and witnesses were historically required to swear before court proceedings could continue. In Britain and some other countries, the same phrase is also used to refer to a separate procedure for evaluating evidence, which is unrelated to jury selection.
The precise jury selection process varies slightly in different legal jurisdictions, but in general, and in the United States in particular, a pool of potential jurors is usually selected at random from the general public. They are then summoned to appear in court as potential jurors. What occurs next is known as “voir dire.” According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, jurors are questioned “to determine if any juror is biased or cannot deal with the issues fairly, or if there is a cause not to allow a juror to serve.” In such cases, the individual will likely be dismissed from the jury pool. At the end of the voir dire process, the correct number of jurors (usually 12 plus several alternates) is chosen from those who are still left in the jury pool.
The basic purpose of voir dire is to ensure that the jury will be reasonably unbiased and neutral, so that the resulting trial will be fair to both sides. There are a number of issues on which jurors may be examined during voir dire to test their suitability. According to the Cornell Institute, potential jurors will be asked whether they have prior knowledge of the facts, which could result in having them form a decision based on information that was not actually presented in the trial itself. This would be considered a violation of due process. They will also be examined to see whether they know, or could have a close connection to, either the accused or the victim(s), since either of these aspects could emotionally cloud their judgement.
In addition, attorneys may also be alert to potential biases from cultural background or political ideology. Depending upon the case in question, the judge or one of the attorneys may want to know whether juries are opposed to a conviction (or, for that matter, an acquittal) under any circumstances. This is a particular problem in American capital punishment trials, where potential jurors’ opposition to the death penalty is known as “death disqualification.” Jurors who would oppose capital punishment regardless of guilt are normally not permitted to sit on juries where a guilty verdict could result in a capital sentence.
In addition to these official purposes, the University of New Mexico’s Judicial Education Centre points out that lawyers will have a number of ulterior motives during voir dire as well. Prosecutors will naturally hope that potential jurors are predisposed to sympathize with the alleged victim. Defence lawyers will just as understandably hope to disqualify individuals who seem prepared to prejudge guilt in favour of those who will empathize with the accused. Since at least some of those in the jury pool will go on to form the actual trial jury, lawyers on both sides will of course see voir dire as their first opportunity to earn jurors’ trust and respect. That first favourable impression will be something that selectees will remember, and perhaps count on, later on during the trial.
Different jurisdictions impose different limitations on voir dire. In the United States, for instance, lawyers can engage in a much more flexible and extensive inquiry into jurors’ backgrounds than in the United Kingdom, where the permitted objections are more narrow and specific. Attorneys in important cases, or representing parties with sufficient resources, may hire psychological consultants to assist them in the jury selection process. In all cases, once the voir dire process is completed, the actual trial jury will be selected from those remaining in the pool. If there are not enough potential jurors remaining after voir dire, then depending upon the rules of the jurisdiction, the court may have options for immediately summoning additional people to join the jury pool, or it may order a mistrial and start the entire process over from the beginning, which would result in summoning a completely new panel of potential jurors.