Item Details

Litigating without speaking legalese: the case of unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong

Issue: Vol 26 No. 2 (2019)

Journal: International Journal of Speech Language and the Law

Subject Areas: Linguistics

DOI: 10.1558/ijsll.34404

Abstract:

The increasing number of unrepresented litigants in various jurisdictions raises the
question of what challenges these lay people face in their access to justice. This article
seeks to examine this by conducting a small ethnographic study and survey in
Hong Kong. Based on 6 hours of courtroom observation in two cases and 8 hours
of pre-trial, during trial and post-trial interview data obtained from 7 sessions, we
show that unrepresented litigants may find navigating difficult legal phrases, legal
homonymy, legal genre and linguistic repertoire in court particularly challenging.
They also risk overestimating the merit of their case when they deploy lay strategies
(i.e. a translation approach or a literal reading approach) to legal interpretation
and case preparation. The survey results lend support to our ethnographic study
by revealing why unrepresented litigants seem to be ill-prepared for their cases in
the eyes of legal professionals. We conclude that unrepresented litigants face both
linguistic and legal challenges during their participation in legal processes, and
often these challenges are intertwined. We therefore suggest that both linguistic
accommodation and legal assistance are essential to help unrepresented litigants
participate effectively in legal processes. This is especially important in the adversarial
courtrooms of common law jurisdictions, to ensure access to justice for the
general public.

Author: Matthew W.L. Yeung, Janny H.C. Leung

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