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This lawyer's life: to ask or not ask is the question

Date:20 JAN 2016
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Mrs Justice Parker and Tom Hardy probably don't have much in common. To my knowledge Parker J has never played Ronnie and Reggie Kray in a film and Hardy has never sat in the High Court. However they both like a succinct question. Parker J famously asks advocates to keep their questions short and to the point. And Hardy recently called out a  reporter for not only asking an intrusive question about his sexuality but for doing so in the most convoluted way so that it made no sense.

Language has been on my mind recently. As I said in my last column we're  currently in the middle of  'awards season' and I'm attending various events in the evenings after court.

I don't know if you can get concussion from words but questions from  journalists on the red carpet can knock me out. Most of you will be familiar with that inane red carpet query 'And who are you wearing'?


Is Cate Blanchett draped in another human being?

Occasionally the question becomes 'And who dressed you?' To this enquiry George Clooney famously quipped 'I'm a 45 year old man, I managed to dress myself.'

Clooney is now 54 which tells you that the journalism arc is not on an upward path.

Being able to ask a good question comes essentially from proper preparation. Knowing your subject and being clear about where you want to get to with a query is as important in court as it is on the red carpet. Poor language and poorer preparation collided a few years ago at an awards event I attended where a girl asked Michael Fassbender about his film Hunger.

'Michael, you got very skinny for this film, why was that?'

Long pause from Fassbender. Then, 'well, I was playing Bobby Sands.'

I was caught out beautifully in court once too when I was new to the profession.

'Your Honour, the father disappeared shortly after the child was born,' I explained.

His Honour gazed down quizzically at me. 'Is the father a magician?'

'No, um, no,' I stammered.

'I see,' said His Honour. 'I just wondered, since you said he disappeared, whether he was part of a travelling show of some sort.'

Well, that learned me!

I wonder what that judge would make of advocates who refer to 'the kids' in family cases..

Call me a snob but I prefer 'children' in the formal setting of a courtroom.

Some of you might say, who cares? Bowie is dead and he wrote  'Fame, bully for you, chilly for me'  which makes no sense at all but he was still a genius.

Good point, well made.

Now we know that Bowie once worked as a paralegal the profession can shed its stuffy image and lay claim to being cool. Here are some legal tributes.

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David Cameron cares about language. He has proposed that women on spouse visas should learn English to help combat segregation and extremism. While extremism is often more a problem with English speaker  raised in Britain, I agree with him that people who seek to make a life in this country should learn English. I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the subject in 2007. We shouldn't still be debating the benefits in 2016.

Lack of English deprives immigrants not only of work opportunities but also social and cultural richness. I no longer remember the name of the teacher who corrected me when I explained my grazed knees by informing her I had 'falled down in the playground' but I am eternally grateful to her for not making me an outsider in two cultures.

By the very act of leaving my country of birth to settle in England I had become an outsider in that society. No matter how much I thought of it as 'home' it no longer was for me. So, newly arrived in England I couldn't afford to be an outsider here too. Everyone needs a base. It doesn't matter that some people don't want you here. It's the sense of belonging you feel inside which no-one can take away and language can help give you that.

My teacher saw me, the only non-white four year old in the school, and decided I had to be able to hold my own in this new place. So she gave up her lunch breaks to make sure I knew my tenses. Had she been more concerned with ensuring I didn't forget my mother-tongue than adapting to the reality of my new home I would have been left straddling two countries 6,000 miles apart.

Thankfully, she did the practical, most logical thing. She helped integrate me into British life while my parents kept alive my cultural origins. It wasn't a competition to see which came out top. There wasn't a better half of me. There was simply a recognition of an immigrant's life being a game of two halves that make up the whole.

By improving my broken English my teachers ensured there is little about British culture that I haven't been able to identify with over the years. English is not just the language of my career. It's the language through which I understand the nuances of British comedy, song lyrics, the films I watch and the books I read. Most of all, it is the language of communication that ensures I never feel disadvantaged in my professional aspirations or social life.

Yet a common language is increasingly devalued. Why go to the trouble of learning a new language when you're offered everything in your own. 'Culturally appropriate' services have increased, not just to help those who genuinely need them (and as temporary measures) but to avoid anyone ever having to work outside their comfort zone. Interpreters and translated documents fill the courts, schools, hospitals - even when they're not necessary.

This myopia does a great disservice to individuals and society. When you no longer have to communicate with people you no longer have to know them and the differences between you are emphasised.

Sometimes one size does fit all.

"This Lawyer's Life" comes to you tongue firmly in cheek and finger pressed on the social scene. Less law, more life. Read other articles for brilliant legal analysis then come here to relax and enjoy the more light-hearted look at a legal life. Follow Rehna on Twitter @itsalawyerslife and join the conversation using #lawyerslife

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing.
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