A ‘tribal’ culture at the bar is adding to the perception that the justice system is remote and inaccessible, the bar regulator has warned.
A Bar Standards Board report on cross-cultural communication published today, says that the complex language and mannerisms routinely used by barristers can make it hard for clients and witnesses to understand what is happening and to ensure they are being well represented.
This could erode faith in the legal process and drive clients to seek representation from providers in their own cultural background, even if those services are not appropriate for their particular case, the report says. Clients could be discouraged from getting legal help at all.
The report was based on a discussion with 30 barristers, experts and representatives of 'diversity groups'.
Highlighting the dangers created by a lack of cross-culture communication, the report warns that a barrister's failure to understand their client’s or witness’s cultural context could have ‘highly damaging’ consequences – at worst a miscarriage of justice.
It says: ‘It can also result in clients and witnesses losing confidence and faith in the legal system as a whole, leaving them less able - or willing - to engage properly next time.’
The report says the advocacy skills and rhetorical tactics barristers are taught can be confusing to vulnerable clients and witness, and incomprehensible to those who do not speak English as a first language or come from poor backgrounds.
Although there had been some improvement, such as introducing training for vulnerable witnesses, this remains a ‘critical challenge’ for the bar.
A lack of diversity at the bar is also adding to the problem it faces in cross-cultural communication, the report says.
It alleges: ‘Discrimination on cultural grounds - for example socio-economic background, gender, sexual orientation, disability - persists, seriously affecting the fair recruitment and retention of practitioners.’
Meanwhile, chambers may be failing to recruit the best or most able candidates if they are able to communicate only with those from a similar background.
The study suggests that barristers should receive training in cross-cultural communications, to develop listening skills, learn how to build rapport and learn how to identify, clarify and repair any misunderstandings.
Vanessa Davies (pictured), director general at the BSB, said: ‘Being able to communicate clearly and effectively with people from different backgrounds is essential to the work of a barrister.
‘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.’