Accent bias

Do you ever wonder whether your accent is holding you back at the Bar? And making a difference in court? Observations from a barrister with an accent


When I was in Bar school, in 1999, the course provider organised a group elocution lesson for the students. We were told by the trainer that she spoke with ‘a BBC accent’. We were not told to change our speech to Received Pronunciation, but it was certainly implied that would be for the best. I remember dismissing it at the time, but deep down being concerned. Was my accent going to hold me back at the Bar?

No judge would ever admit that an advocate’s accent would make any difference to the outcome of the case. But does it, or rather can it, make a difference? Most people, including judges, have conscious biases and we all have unconscious biases. Anyone who thinks they are completely uninfluenced by a person’s gender, race, religion, sexuality, or social background, is dishonest or naïve. So how much an impact does it have if an advocate does not speak with what I am going to call a ‘traditional barristers’ accent’?

I have an Irish accent. Over the years I have noticed a subtle reaction to my accent which is presumptuous about my background. And over the last 19 years as a barrister, I have begun to wonder whether my accent does make a difference in court, and the answer I have come to is: yes, sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a skilled and well-prepared advocate is what matters. However, there have been occasions when I have wondered if accents do make a difference.

In a recently aired BBC 2 documentary, How to Break into the Elite, journalist Amol Rajan followed a number of recent graduates to see if their backgrounds made a difference to their employment prospects. The overwhelming conclusion was that background does make a difference and, as Rajan put it at the end of the documentary: ‘It’s still the most deeply rooted superstition in Britain today; if you sound posh, you must be clever.’ That struck a chord with me and I think that is it in a nutshell – even, or perhaps more so, in court.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, more often than not, and almost always in the higher courts, the judge will have a traditional barristers’ accent. It is natural to have an affinity with those similar to us and, in my opinion, this can make a difference. Secondly, a classic accent can sound more eloquent, and thus, more persuasive. Thirdly, we all make assumptions about a person’s background because of their accent; judges are no exception.

 "It’s still the most deeply rooted superstition in Britain today; if you sound posh, you must be clever."

All of this is intangible and based only on my observations over 19 years. Anecdotally, though, anyone I have mentioned this to, agrees. The only concrete example I have was not in court but when sitting on a scholarship interviewing panel. One of the panel members was a senior judge with a traditional background. It was abundantly clear that he was more impressed with interviewees from traditional backgrounds who studied classics at Oxbridge and spoke Latin than the person who was a first-generation immigrant, who grew up in a council estate in east London, and had a first class degree from a good university. That is not to say that he should not have been more impressed with those Oxbridge applicants, but he appeared to be more influenced by background than anything else. I have no doubt that if I were in front of that judge with an opponent from a traditional background, that fact would have an influence on the outcome.

Sometimes barristers will leave court with a uneasy feeling that they didn’t perform quite as well as they could. This happens to all of us and has nothing to do with accent. But sometimes, just sometimes, I have a feeling that it might.

Objectively, I will conclude that my opponent and I were equally matched, both well-prepared and both effective, and that for some reason the judge seemed to give more import to my opponent’s submissions than mine. In the vast majority of cases that is just because the judge preferred my opponent’s case, but sometimes, I get the sense that accents and background really do make a difference. 

Allan Briddock is a barrister at One Pump Court and specialises in immigration and asylum law.

 


 

A pupillage scenario

Pupil J is a white female who is highly educated and whose accent and speech is suggestive of a private school education. Objectively, her intellectual ability as a lawyer is no better than the other pupils at XYZ chambers. However, her pupil master has an unconscious preference for privately educated people based on his own education and background. He also makes unconscious assumptions about the university education of J. Further, the pupil master’s bias also includes a stereotypical belief about how good people like J are at conveying an air of confidence. Unwittingly, he rates J more highly than is a true reflection of her ability in terms of her intellectual ability and potential as an advocate. The difficulty in this situation is that the pupil master’s initial impression that he formed of J is very difficult to undo. The pupil master can’t help but see her average work output as being of higher quality than it is and to overlook or minimise her errors. This is because of the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms an existing biased perception. Possible solutions to the unfairness might include having a moderation process so that pupil master assessments are compared by reference to objective evidence that a pupil meets a particular performance standard. Another option might to rotate the pupils between different pupil masters prior to any assessment. Bar Council Equality and Diversity Guide: Subconscious Bias: www.barcouncilethics.co.uk

RP and the prestige continuum: a quick history

Eighteenth century concern about class and correctness led to the emergence of one accent which attracted more prestige than others – the speech of polite London society, writes Professor David Crystal for BBC Voices (‘Language and time’: bbc.in/2kgc701). By the end of the 19th century this became known as received pronunciation (RP) and was quickly associated with public-school and Oxbridge education. ‘But almost as soon as RP arrived, it began to diversify. It already contained a great deal of personal variation, and it was subject to change, as any other accent’.

On 14 November 1922 the BBC’s first radio report was broadcast to the nation in flawless RP. Long considered to be the language of elites, power and royalty, for many years the BBC would only allow RP accents to appear on its airwaves. ‘That this accent became synonymous with the voice of a nation had clear connotations. RP was trusted, authoritarian and sincere. Fortunately, the BBC now allows all sorts of regional accents on its broadcasts – and even encourages it, aiming to both represent the diverse audience the BBC has and to draw new people in,’ writes Melissa Hogenboom for BBC Future (‘What does your accent say about you?’).

Setting out to critically analyse ‘Evaluative reactions to accents’, the seminal language attitudes study by Howard Giles (1970), Yuko Hiraga (2005) assessed British attitudes towards the ‘status’ (ie perceived prestige) of six varieties of British and American English accents: (1) RP; (2) Network American; (3) New York City; (4) Alabama; (5) West Yorkshire; and (6) Birmingham. Yet in terms of ‘solidarity’ (the extent to which an individual identifies with an accent) W. Yorkshire topped the list and RP bumped to fourth. Giles’s 1970 study had identified the following ‘prestige continuum’: (1) RP; (2) Affected RP; (3) N. American and French; (5) German; (6) S. Welsh; (7) Irish; (8) Italian; (9) N. England; (10) Somerset; (11) Indian and Cockney; (13) Birmingham.

First impressions: the ‘silent’ language

Lawyers may think that personality and character have little place in negotiations; deliver the facts, figures and evidence, and an informed, logical decision based solely on the merits of your argument will be made. ‘Think again,’ says India Ford, founder of Talkbodylanguage. ‘The reality is that people buy people first; it’s how we’re hardwired, and if we don’t like the messenger – subliminally – we’ll be resistant to the message.’

A first impression is influenced by cognitive biases that create an instinctive and emotional reaction within us and impact how we assess another person’s overall credibility and authority, Ford explains, and whilst 7% of communication comes from the words we speak, tone of voice accounts for 38% and the lion’s share (55%) is delivered through body language.

‘The way you walk, your facial expression, the way in which you make eye contact and even the speed at which you enter the room will all provide valuable information from which people will assess – on a powerful and subconscious level – your competence and trustworthiness, and in less than one second!

‘Your ability to influence a successful outcome has many components, yet most people unfortunately make a rookie mistake. They focus entirely on the verbal content of their argument, leaving their most powerful communication device – their body language – on a default setting,’ Ford says.

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Allan Briddock

Allan practises from One Pump Court and specialises in asylum, immigration and nationality law, and human rights in business. He is a trustee of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group and a co-founder of the Trans Equality Legal Initiative.