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Project

Accent Discrimination and the Bar

Unit(s) of assessment: Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management

Research theme: Global Heritage

School: School of Arts and Humanities; Nottingham Law School

Overview

In the 21st century, accent prejudice continues to be an issue which reduces social mobility for large numbers of people within the UK. Language is not explicitly protected under the Equality Act 2010 and therefore accent can form a basis on which to discriminate, particularly in elite professions.

This inter-disciplinary team is interested in approaches to research within the fields of Linguistics and Law to help understand more about implicit accent bias affecting barristers. The importance of accents in the workplace and how speakers are judged for having non-standard accents will be investigated. We will examine whether Received Pronunciation (RP) is regarded as the ‘appropriate’ way to speak for barristers.

Barristers specialise in presenting formalised legal arguments before courts and tribunals. As a result, considerable proficiency is placed on their oral skills. Oral advocacy plays a substantial role in the training and assessment process in the early years of practice. This project aims to understand how the role of public speaking links to the presumption that particular accents are more highly respected than others. By investigating barriers in accessing one of the legal professions, we can improve its representativeness and ensure confidence in it. As such, it is the first project to consider accent bias within this context and examine it from multiple angles to triangulate findings.

Addressing the Challenge

The research for this project will take place in three stages:

Stage 1: An online survey will examine how the public judge barristers based upon their accent.

Stage 2: This will include interviews with students intending to join the bar and barristers in their early career to investigate their experiences with accent bias and what how, if at all, the question of accent has been addressed during their training.

Stage 3: Will include semi-structured interviews with experienced barristers to question whether attitudes have changed and to find out about their own experiences and with those they have trained as well as the role of accent in recruitment for pupillage and/or tenancy.

Examining accent bias within a law context using both quantitative and qualitative methods will allow us to examine findings from multiple angles to better inform future research ideas and intervention strategies.

People

The research project is led by Professor Natalie Braber (Arts and Humanities), who has expertise in linguistics research, focussing primarily on accents, dialects, identity and perceptual dialectology. Natalie also forms part of the ESRC-funded project Improving Voice Identification Procedures with colleagues at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and De Montfort University to improve guidelines for using voice samples for earwitness testimony and voice parades.

Professor Jane Ching and Professor Jane Jarman (Nottingham Law School) are co-investigators of the project.  They have carried out several funded empirical projects in the UK and elsewhere, investigating the regulation of, competence in, and access to, practice as a lawyer.

Jeremy Robson (Senior Lecturer in Law at De Montfort University) is an external consultant on the project and is a practitioner and academic with a specialism in removing barriers to justice. Jeremy also works on the IVIP project with Natalie where his research focuses on the legal issues surrounding the use of voice identification in court, in particular the use of voice parades.

Olivia Stevens is the Research Fellow working on the project and has previous research experience in accent discrimination in access to elite professions.

External collaboration with the Accentism Project and The Accent Bias Project have informed the project and its research questions.

The project’s advisory board which consists of judges, barristers and those involved in training barristers provides expertise to better inform the research and produce novel output.

The Research is internally funded by NTU within the research centre for the study of Inequality, Culture and Difference and is supported by the Safety and Security of Citizens theme.

Making a Difference

It is envisaged that the initial findings of this pilot study will inform a larger-scale study (to include a wider geographical spread as well as a larger sample) which will also contain elements of training and methods of best practice, ensuring benefit to training barristers (affecting training courses as well as training by the Inns and during pupillage). 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.