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.

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.  

barrister thumb
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% 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.

Researchers also conducted interviews with barristers and students to find out their experiences. One said a judge had commented he needed to lose his Northern accent if he 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 Nottingham Trent University’s Professor of Linguistics Professor Natalie Braber, and involved Associate Professor in Law Jeremy Robson of De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), who is also a practicing barrister.

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.”

Professor Braber added: “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.”
Posted on Monday 30 January 2023

  Search news archive