Barristers have a vital role in helping clients and witnesses understand the legal system but their own “distinct and tribal culture” is a barrier to doing so, a Bar Standards Board (BSB) report has found.
This culture was also seen as a barrier to improving diversity at the Bar, which in itself would help the profession better understand the needs of clients from other cultures.
The report on cross-cultural communication at the Bar – which followed a symposium run by the BSB – said the “complex language and mannerisms routinely used by barristers in communicating with each other and with members of the judiciary can make it harder for clients and witnesses to understand what is happening to them and to ensure that they are being accurately represented”.
More broadly, the failure to communicate across cultures contributed to a “damaging perception that the justice system is remote, powerful and inaccessible. In turn, this can erode faith in the legal process”.
When it came to the profession itself, the report highlighted “the subtle but well-established cultural codes and practices, from dress code and mannerisms of speech to perceived bias towards particular educational or economic backgrounds.
“These create a sense of a group who are ‘in the know’ and part of ‘the tribe’, and leave those outside the tribe – including newcomers such as pupils – feeling isolated or excluded, undermining efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity within the Bar.”
The report defined cross-cultural communication as “the ability to empathise, understand and communicate effectively with those who may not share one’s own style of spoken language or one’s own background – be that racial, gender, religious or any other background”.
Among the problems were the culture and language in court – “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” – a lack of precision in translation that loses the nuances of languages, the complexity of communication within the legal system, the lack of power felt by clients and witnesses, and “differing cultural norms, values and beliefs about justice”.
The problems many barristers had with the issue started with how they were trained. “Participants were concerned that the rhetorical tactics and questioning techniques routinely used by barristers to elicit concessions can be deeply confusing for vulnerable clients and witnesses,” the report said.
There was a strong consensus among participants at the symposium that barristers needed training in cross-cultural communication, both at vocational level and as part of continuing professional development.
They identified three key skills barristers needed: adapting communication across cultures, building rapport across cultural differences, and identifying when a misunderstanding has taken place.
BSB director-general Dr Vanessa Davies said: “We are pleased to have begun the conversation between the profession and diversity groups about cross-cultural communication at the Bar…
“Making sure barristers meet a competent standard of cultural awareness and understanding is a key component of the professional statement and an important theme in our strategy for 2016-19.”
Following the symposium, the BSB’s equality and access to justice team is now leading a programme to provide more awareness of the benefits of good cross-cultural communication at the Bar.
Last week the Legal Services Board published a report that said “inaccessible language” used by lawyers prevented consumers from accessing legal services.