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Multilingual lawyers are paving the way to a more accessible justice system

As a conversation with one of my colleagues demonstrates, lawyers who can speak multiple languages make the law more accessible for immigrants and non-English speakers who are navigating the family law system, writes Laila Sayed.

user iconLaila Sayed 08 June 2023 SME Law
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Born and raised in China and educated at UNSW in Sydney, Carlos Junchao Li is a solicitor at Justice Family Lawyers who is fluent in English, Mandarin, Spanish and Shanghainese. Carlos is also a NAATI-certified translator.   

Carlos is one of the 18 per cent of NSW legal practitioners that speak another language, and he works hard to make the law more accessible for immigrants and non-English speakers who are navigating the family law system.   

I spoke with Carlos about the unique role he plays in making the law more accessible and how he tackles language and cultural barriers to achieve fair and equitable results for his clients:  


What is one of the greatest barriers you face when assisting non-English speaking clients?   

One of the primary challenges I encounter when working with non-English speaking clients is their difficulty in understanding legal terminology, which unfortunately cannot be avoided when discussing legal proceedings. Additionally, the variance between legal systems poses another hurdle. For example, in the jurisdiction of their home country, they may have entirely distinct legal concepts, or there may be no equivalent to what is in the Australian jurisdiction. 

For example, if you advise a Chinese client on the “service of documents”, then chances are they won’t understand what you mean. Even after explaining the meaning, the next hurdle would be to explain that the service of documents is a requirement on the parties, as in China, it is the court’s obligation to serve filed pleadings on the respondents or defendants.    

Another example relates to the concept of “court orders”. As far as I’m concerned, this notion is almost alien to Chinese clients because, in the Chinese legal system, there are only limited types of orders, and there is no equivalent term for “court orders” in a general sense. The “orders” in a judgment are referred to as “judgment items” in Chinese rather than “orders”, and procedural directions or decisions from a court are referred to as “rulings”. These distinctions highlight the radical differences between the two systems.  

How has being a multilingual practitioner helped you to overcome these barriers?  

Being a multilingual practitioner has been instrumental in overcoming these barriers. Firstly, it allows me to explain legal concepts to the client in their native language, which helps them to better understand the proceedings and minimises potential miscommunications.

Additionally, I find that being familiar with the client’s cultural background and the legal system of their home country helps me to navigate the nuances and differences between the legal systems and allows me to tailor my communication and practising style to the client’s needs.

Another advantage of being a multilingual practitioner is that you can monitor whether the court interpreter is accurately interpreting the proceedings to your client. Interpreters may lack prior knowledge of the matter, which means that it can be difficult for them to accurately translate information without understanding the wider context of the proceedings.  If the practitioner can speak the same language, then they are able to ensure that the translator is accurately relaying information to the client.  

Do you find that non-English speaking clients are particularly vulnerable when going through family law proceedings?  

I find that non-English speaking clients are particularly vulnerable when navigating family law proceedings, and there are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to represent themselves due to the language barrier. As a result of this, they will need assistance from a bilingual lawyer, even in cases that might be relatively straightforward for a native English speaker.

Secondly, family law proceedings are conducted exclusively in English, which means that every time the bilingual lawyer finishes drafting a document, they will need to spend further time explaining and translating it to the client rather than simply forwarding the document to review and approve. 

The need for bilingual legal assistance and the extra time and costs this involves creates significant financial implications for non-English speaking clients.

What cultural considerations do you take into account when working with clients from a non-English speaking background?  

In my experience with Chinese clients, I find that given the disparity between the Chinese legal system and the Australian legal system, it is not uncommon for Chinese clients to find it extremely difficult to accept the fact that there is no difference between “pre-marital property or separate property” and “marital or community property” in Australia. 

Furthermore, many of my clients struggle with the fact that the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia can refuse to make property orders by consent on the grounds that they do not consider them to be “just and equitable”. This is perplexing for clients, as their own personal standards of what is considered fair and equitable may differ from the court’s perspective.

What advice do you have for Australian practitioners who are assisting clients who do not speak English as a first language?  

Be patient and do your best to phrase information in a way that they can understand.  It is also important to be mindful that their vocabulary is limited, so try not to use complicated words or unnecessary legal jargon (especially Latin).  

In Australia, we use idioms as part of the way that we communicate, for example, “the grass is greener on the other side”; be mindful that this will not be understood by a client whose first language is not English, and it can make them feel confused or embarrassed for not understanding. 

When you speak with them, I would recommend talking slowly so that they can keep up with what you are saying.  It is also good practice to take a moment and ask whether they understand what you have told them, or if they have any questions.   

Above all, be kind and compassionate, as it’s hard enough going through legal proceedings without navigating a language barrier.

Laila Sayed is a solicitor at Justice Family Lawyers.

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