15 September 2019

January 2016 - Cross-cultural Communication Report

In January 2016 we published a report about our cross-cultural communication symposium, which it held that month.

The  symposium titled "Does Cross-Cultural Communication Matter at the Bar?" was about how barristers interact with people of different backgrounds, whether they be clients, witnesses or fellow professionals. We defined culture broadly across a range of characteristics including ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic background and wider characteristics.

Making sure barristers understand what clients mean when the barrister is being instructed, and what witnesses mean when the barrister examines them in court, was at the centre of the discussion at the symposium.

Delegates informed us that cross-cultural communication is critical to access to justice. When there is a difference in cultural background between barristers and those they are communicating with, there is a risk of miscommunication. An example would be a barrister who uses idioms and rhetorical questions in court with a vulnerable witness whose first language is not English.

To consider the role that we should play in promoting this important issue, we brought together a select group of people at the symposium. Attendees included barristers, representatives from diversity groups (including: ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation) and specialist bar associations (SBAs).

Some issues identified at the symposium, and which are contained in the report, include:

  • Culture and language in court -appearing in court can be distressing and anxiety-inducing. The formalities of court culture and the obscure, often alien language used in legal proceedings can accentuate problems in cross-cultural communication, leaving many clients and witnesses confused and isolated.
  • Translation and the "language gap"- precision in language is critical in court: even subtle nuances can alter meaning. Most languages - including English - have their own distinct national and regional dialects.
  • Complexity of the legal system- the legal system in England and Wales involves many parties, from law enforcement to court officials, legal professionals to external agencies. The interplay between the different people involved, bureaucracy and the legal system can be daunting for those who are unfamiliar with it, especially for those who are already in a distressing and urgent situation.
  • Imbalances in power -Clients and witnesses - particularly those from minority and marginalised cultures - are often entirely reliant on others, such as barristers, to make themselves heard. If barristers misunderstand them due to cultural barriers, this poses a risk to justice.
  • Differing cultural norms, values and beliefs about justice -people from different cultures may have widely varying - indeed, conflicting - attitudes and expectations about law and justice.

There was a strong consensus that barristers should have opportunities to develop cross-cultural communication skills, both at the vocational level prior to qualification and as part of their professional development. Three key skills were identified for barristers to continue to develop:

  • Adapting communication across cultures
  • Building rapport across cultural differences
  • Identifying when a misunderstanding has taken place (rectifying and preventing as soon as possible)

The event concluded with participants offering their support for the BSB to explore further solutions to help barristers and consumers meet the challenges of cross-cultural communication. With this mandate, the BSB Equality and Access to Justice team are leading a programme that will provide more awareness of the benefits of good cross-cultural communication at the Bar.