Accent bias still holding back regional barristers, research finds

Barristers: Accent bias continues

Barristers with regional accents still encounter bias from both clients and professional colleagues that those who speak in what is regarded as an ‘acceptable’ accent do not, new research has found.

Though there have been improvements, the impact is to “unnecessarily limit” talent from succeeding at the Bar and damage public confidence in the justice system.

Academics from Nottingham Trent University – which funded the year-long project – and De Montfort University first created a recording of a defence closing speech in a criminal trial being delivered by male speakers with different English regional accents as well as one with ‘received pronunciation’ (RP).

Members of the public then listened to and rated the speakers on different criteria.

According to a review the researchers published in the Bar Council’s magazine, the speaker with an RP accent scored highly on ‘professionalism’, ’intelligence’, and ‘confidence’, matched only by the speaker with a South-East accent.

The speaker with a West Midlands accent fared least well, being assessed on average as being unlikely to possess these traits.

Where the respondent had a similar accent to the speaker, however, they were more likely to score the speaker more positively.

Over 80% of the 99 participants said they would be ‘comfortable’ or ‘very comfortable’ being represented by advocates with RP or South-East accents.

But fewer than 20% said the same about a South-West or West Midlands accent; rather, the majority would feel ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ about being represented by such a speaker.

Asked about the likelihood of the speaker being a lawyer, the RP speaker was deemed most likely, while over half thought the South-West and West Midlands speakers were unlikely to be a lawyer.

The second stage of the project involved semi-structured interviews with five barristers of more than seven years’ call, two with less and two Bar students.

The senior practitioners recounted that there has historically been accent discrimination at the Bar – one was told by a senior judge that, if he wished to practise in Chancery, he would have to lose his northern accent, while another decided to leave their London practice and return to their home area as they felt they did not fit in because of their accent.

“All participants felt there had been progress but felt that there were still very few barristers with regional accents in practice.

“There were still examples that early career practitioners were able to recount of being told to change soften their accents if they wished to fit in. One practitioner described a pupillage committee where some members had raised the issue of a candidate’s strong regional accent as being an adverse factor.

“Other, more recent examples, cited by participants included a judge commenting adversely on an advocate’s accent in open court.”

The academics were told that certain ‘softer’ accents were perceived as being less of an issue, but Birmingham and Liverpool accents were seen as less desirable, while acceptability differed by practice area too.

“Some participants felt that the lack of accent diversity impacted both upon their own career and those of others. It was felt that barristers with regional accents often lacked role models who sounded like them and that jokey comments created a sense of ‘othering’ which fed into feelings of imposter syndrome.

“One pupil commented that they had deliberately chosen to avoid applying to certain sets of chambers as they felt they might not fit in because of their accent.”

The researchers acknowledged the small sample size but said “the emerging trends suggest that while there have been some improvements, barristers with regional accents still encounter challenges that those who speak in what is regarded as an ‘acceptable’ accent do not.

“Until this is addressed, the Bar will unnecessarily limit the best talent from succeeding and public confidence in the justice system will suffer.”

The intention is that the research will inform a larger study, including a wider geographical spread as well as a larger sample, which will also contain elements of training and methods of best practice.

“With the support of our advisory board, we have to potential to engage with the providers of the bar training course and ensure maximum impact at different levels of teaching practice and policy making.”

The team was led by Natalie Braber, a linguistics professor at Nottingham Trent University, working with Nottingham Trent law professors Jane Ching and Jane Jarman, and Jeremy Robson, a barrister and associate law professor at De Montfort University.

The advisory board was made up of practitioners from the Midlands Circuit’s social mobility committee, linguists, a judge and Lynda Gibbs, dean of the Inns of Court College of Advocacy.

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