AUTHOR: Eades, Diana
TITLE: Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process
SERIES TITLE: MM Textbooks
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
Donna Bain Butler, International Legal Studies Program, American University's
Washington College of Law, Washington, D.C.
Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process is a textbook written for courses ''in
which sociolinguistics is used in an examination of the legal process'' (p. 4).
The book is targeted at postgraduate and advanced undergraduate students who
study language use in legal process context. A background in sociolinguistics or
law is not necessary for students, as the author covers both at a fairly
introductory level. This book is student-centered, with assignments and further
research leading to a deeper understanding of language use in each legal context
presented in the five-part text.
Published by Multilingual Matters, the book has a research-based,
Anglo-orientation that does not exclude students from other legal and cultural
traditions. The assignments and class discussion ending each section invite
students from diverse societies around the world interested in situated language
practices in specific legal contexts to contrast and compare these contexts with
their own legal systems. By drawing on a wide range of sociolinguistic studies,
and some socio-legal studies, this text uses sociolinguistic analysis to
consider ''how social inequality is reproduced in the legal system and through
the legal system'' (p. 12). Like Conley and O'Barr (2005), Eades believes ''that
rigorous sociolinguistic analysis can help us understand the workings of the law
and to see its shortcomings as well as its strengths'' (p. 12). In this way,
going beyond descriptive language patterns to analyzing the role of language
patterns in the workings of the legal process, the author assumes a critical
The overarching legal contexts around which the text is organized are the
following: courtrooms, police interviews, lawyer-client interactions, informal
courts and alternative legal processes such as mediation. According to the
author, these are the main legal contexts in which sociolinguists investigate
language use in common law countries such as Australia, Canada (excluding
Québec), New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Eades (2010)
points out that most of the research about sociolinguistics and law written in
English is about common law with origins in England.
As previously noted, the book is organized into five parts. Part 1 discusses
using sociolinguistics to study the legal process, with notes on terminology and
the Anglocentric orientation of the book. Class discussion at the end questions
the meanings of ''law'' and ''justice,'' asking students to consider how translation
in other languages might shed light on similarities or differences from the
English concepts of ''law'' and ''justice''.
Part 2 deals with courtroom hearings in 5 chapters. Students are introduced to
issues involved in researching courtroom talk followed by a focus on talk in
courtroom trials, ''the legal context for which there is the greatest body of
sociolinguistic research (p. 19). Two chapters in this section deal with
particular social groups in court: (a) second language (L2) speakers and sign
language users; and (b) vulnerable witnesses such as children, second dialect
speakers, and people outside the cultural norm. Following the focus on social
groups in court is an examination of the relationship between language and power
and how courtroom talk is part of wider social power relations and struggles.
Assignments and further research at the end of Part 2 call for critical analysis
and review, written research proposals, observation of authentic language use,
and exploration of differences in court hearings with different legal systems,
among other matters.
Part 3 deals with the context of police interviews in two chapters. The first
examines (a) the ways that police advise suspects of their rights, and (b) the
ways that police interviews (with suspects or witnesses) are summarized in
written reports. The second chapter looks at police interviews with members of
minority groups that include L2 speakers, deaf sign language users, speakers of
Creole languages and second dialects, and children. A relevant exercise for both
native and non-native English speakers at the end of Part 3 invites research and
comparison of one-page summaries of information elicited in an interview.
Part 4 investigates language use in other legal contexts, starting with
lawyer-client interactions in the first chapter. Attention turns to informal
(for example, small claims) courts and arbitration in the next chapter, before
moving on to mediation talk and alternative criminal justice processes (that is,
restorative justice practices, therapeutic courts, and indigenous courts) on
which there is little sociolinguistic research. The author provides questions
and references for further research at the end of the section, aiming to foster
understanding of how language works across alternative legal contexts.
Part 5 concludes the text by addressing what sociolinguistics can do in addition
to showing how language does and does not work in the legal process. Key topics
include expert evidence, legal education, and investigating inequality. Teachers
(lecturers, professors) are invited to have students research and report on
different studies introduced in the chapter using the many cited references. In
assignments and further research at the end, Eades calls for examining the role
of language ideologies in (a) ''judicial decisions in your country relating to
the voluntariness of confessions and related issues such as suspects' invocation
of their rights,'' and (b) ''the unequal treatment of a particular minority group,
for example deaf sign users, children, or people with intellectual disabilities''
(p. 257). She gives examples of language ideologies that may impact the legal
process such as the Standard English ideology as the only ''correct'' or ''proper''
way to speak. Research options for students could be a literature-based
investigation or an empirical study, depending on students' educational context.
Investigating what (else) sociolinguistics can do is necessary in this age of
globalization and continued social inequities. Under ''Expert evidence,'' the
author introduces some of the main questions on which sociolinguists give
evidence. Under ''Legal education,'' the author explains how sociolinguists have
applied aspects of their work to legal education. Under ''Investigating
inequality,'' Eades gives examples of the many ways in which the law can fail to
deliver justice, or can fail to treat all people equally. Some of the
assumptions about language which permeate the legal process and lead to unequal
treatment of L2 speakers are expertly considered by Eades in the book’s
concluding section. Some strongly held, shared assumptions about how language
works in western societies that are not restricted to law can be contrasted with
other cultures, revealing a general lack of understanding of bilingualism and
Part 5 ends with the author asserting that ''sociolinguistic research and legal
education has a role to play in exposing problematic views about language and
variation so that second dialect speakers can access equality in the law'' (p.
256). The same, she says, ''applies to people from different cultural backgrounds
whose different ways of communicating can directly impact on the ways they are
assessed within the legal system'' (p. 256). To that, I would add that the same
applies to students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds whose
different ways of communicating can directly impact on the ways they are
assessed in law school.
To conclude, potential readership for this volume extends across the social
sciences, from courses on Sociolinguistics and Law to Second Language Education
and Culture studies to Legal English courses that focus on authentic language
use in a common law legal context. The exercises and topics for class discussion
and debate are adaptable and can facilitate ''active student learning in relation
to the issues, research findings and questions being discussed'' for masters and
doctoral students (p. 20). Teachers can also draw on teaching materials made
available from the publisher's website. In sum, not only does Diana Eades'
textbook cross disciplinary and cultural borders, but also it bridges the gap
between research and pedagogy. Bravo.
Conley, J. M., & O'Barr, W. M. (2005). Just words: Law, language and power (2nd
ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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