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“Barrister Speak”: A Guide

I shamelessly reproduce this post on a blog from a barrister finding his way through the criminal justice system in England. I thank my London lawyer friend who posted the dialog on Facebook. It deserves as wide an audience as possible. It is so “on the button” and so true.

Sometimes the barrister jargon backfires on the speaker. It happened to me once in front of a senior judge at Inner London Crown Court. Whatever I said to him, and of course in “barrister speak” but I forget exactly what I said, was not fully understood by the learned judge. I was in one of those awkward spots when the client was being extremely difficult if not impossible, and I had to convey to the judge that I was having difficulties. I had to do this in such a way that my client wouldn’t have a clue what I was saying. Unfortunately neither did the judge! The learned judge listened to me carefully, as always I must add, and simply said, “Mr. Bentley you are being rather Delphic this morning.” I had to nod in agreement owing to the fact I hadn’t got a clue what Delphic meant! Enough of my ramblings and enjoy what follows –

Translating barrister-speak: A beginner’s guide

That was the summer that was. As the late September sun bows its head to the blustery arrival of autumnal gloom, so the seemingly-endless parade of mini-pupils marching through Chambers, all freshly starched and full of unwarranted optimism, comes to an abrupt halt.

The most recent law student to buy into the falsehood that there’s anything of consequence to be learned by watching me blunder my way through criminal proceedings made a remark at the end of an enthralling day of observing a Crown Court list (essentially a production line of short, boring and repetitive case management hearings all heard in the same courtroom). It wasn’t a sparkling, or even original, remark. It’s not something to get excited about. Not like, for example, this gratuitous picture of John Candy preparing the world’s greatest ever birthday breakfast in Uncle Buck:


No, the work experience youngster made some anodyne comment about barristers all speaking a peculiar language in court when addressing judges. Which is true. It’s learned behaviour that one slips into over the first few years of practice, and is, to the outsider, a fairly alienating manner of address. Barristers like to pretend that the style and form has developed through necessity of clarity and precision, but the truth probably owes more to Orwell’s thoughts on the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language.

In any event, the youth commented that he would benefit from some sort of rough translation guide when sitting and listening to proceedings in court. And so, while I have no doubt that this is an exercise that has been attempted by writers far more accomplished and amusing than me, for the benefit of future generations, I attempt this feat as follows:



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  1. Adam Adam

    Legalese, bureaucratese, newspeak, double-talk – it’s all in the realm of the “debasement of language,” but it comes in the form of “elevated” language: people feel smarter when they use it.

    The colloquial language on the right side just has more damn vitality (and honesty!) to it – perhaps a close equivalent to what “My Cousin Vinny” might have used.

    Great post.

  2. Jerry Jerry

    And very disheartening if you are the defendant and have no idea what is being said with this double-talk.

    • That is true particularly if (a) it is an intelligent defendant and (b) even more so if the defendant is wrongly accused. But I’m sure most neutral observers must know that many defendants in the English criminal justice system are ‘their own worst enemies.’ Many of these examples of ‘barrister-speak’ are in reality used in the short administrative type of hearing, but not always.

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