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Regional accents are a bar to legal careers, researchers find

People are less likely to want to be represented by a barrister who has a regional accent, preferring ‘posh’ voices instead, according to new research led by Nottingham Trent University.

wig on a table
NTU led the year-long research project

Regional accents are a bar to legal careers, researchers find

People are less likely to want to be represented by a barrister who has a regional accent, preferring ‘posh’ voices instead, according to new research led by Nottingham Trent University (NTU).

A year-long research project examining attitudes to accents has found that accent discrimination has the potential to put off talented students from entering the profession and could be a barrier to career progression for people without received pronunciation (RP) – the tone associated with upper-class accents or BBC English.

The team created a recording of a defence closing speech delivered by male speakers with different English regional accents and someone speaking with Received Pronunciation.

They asked members of the people to listen to the recordings and rate the speakers against criteria including clarity, confidence, intelligence and professionalism. They were also asked to score the extent to which they thought the speaker was likely to be a lawyer, and how likely they would be to be represented by them.

More than 80 per cent of people said they would be comfortable or very comfortable being represented by lawyers with RP or South Eastern accents – but fewer than 20 per cent stating the same about someone with a West Midlands or South West accent.  More than half of those surveyed felt the speakers with those two accents were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to be a barrister.

Professor Natalie Braber
Project lead Professor Natalie Braber

Researchers also conducted interviews with barristers and students to find out their experiences. One said a judge had commented they needed to lose their Northern accent if they wanted to practise, and many told the team they were told to ‘soften’ their accents to fit in.

One pupil said they had avoided applying to a certain set of chambers as they felt they would not fit in.

The research team was led by Professor Natalie Braber, a Professor of Linguistics at NTU's School of Arts and Humanities and involved Professor Jane Jarman, Professor of Legal Practice at Nottingham Law School; Professor Jane Ching, a Professor of Professional Legal Education at Nottingham Law School; and Jeremy Robson, Associate Professor in Law at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), who is also a practicing barrister.

Professor Braber said: “While the number of participants is small, 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.”

Mr Robson said: “It is clear from our research and the subsequent response to it on social issue that this is an issue which resonates with many members of the Bar. From dealing with students who thinking of entering the profession I know that their perception is that their accent will be an obstacle to their progression. If the Bar (and therefore the judiciary) are going to be representative of all of society this issue will need examining further and addressing.”

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with approximately 40,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked 2nd most sustainable university in the world in the 2022 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 31 January 2023
  • Category: Press office; School of Arts and Humanities; Nottingham Law School