Posted by: aboutalbion | February 2, 2013

Language and the rule of law

Does fluency and proficiency with the English language matter in the UK?

I am asking myself that question after reading the latest release of information from the 2011 census.  This finds that 92% of the UK population declared that English was their main language.  Of the remaining 8% [four million] for whom English was not their main language, most reported that they were proficient at speaking English [either ‘very well’, ‘well’, or ‘not well’].  However, the census revealed that around 138,000 people living in England and Wales could not speak English at all.

Do does fluency and proficiency with the English language matter in the UK?

I think it does because it is the foundation of the ‘rule of law’ society that we have in the UK.  How can the ‘rule of law’ exercise its supervisory role unless all UK citizens are fluent and proficient in the language in which the law is stated?

The ‘rule of law’ principle that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ (a) assumes that ‘the law’ has been appropriately published and distributed and broadcast, and (b) imputes knowledge of ‘the law’ to all people within the UK.  This legal principle presupposes fluency and proficiency with the English language.

The following pledge (made by those becoming British citizens at a public ceremony) also assumes fluency and proficiency with the English language in order to carry it out.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.”

And I note that the Bar Standards Board [who regulate barristers in England and Wales ‘in the public interest’] has felt the need to be active in this area in the last few years.

Their concern is that those aspiring to be advocates in a ‘rule of law’ society need to evidence the highest levels of fluency and proficiency in the English language, and that (over the years) the entry standards among students has been declining.  One  report puts it like this: “The student body includes graduates who are so far lacking in the qualities needed for successful practice at the Bar, including fluency in spoken and written English, that they would never obtain pupillage, however many pupillages were available.”

To address that concern, the Bar Standards Board will be introducing a Bar Course Aptitude Test for every new student in 2013.

I find that the project of maintaining a ‘rule of law’ society needs constant attention to (along with many other important matters) adequate language competence among all its citizens.


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