Litigating without speaking legalese

the case of unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong


  • Matthew W.L. Yeung The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
  • Janny H.C. Leung The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong



unrepresented litigants, courtroom discourse, legal and lay ideology, comprehension, common law


The increasing number of unrepresented litigants in various jurisdictions raises the question of what challenges these lay people face in their access to justice. This article seeks to examine this by conducting a small ethnographic study and survey in Hong Kong. Based on 6 hours of courtroom observation in two cases and 8 hours of pre-trial, during trial and post-trial interview data obtained from 7 sessions, we show that unrepresented litigants may find navigating difficult legal phrases, legal homonymy, legal genre and linguistic repertoire in court particularly challenging. They also risk overestimating the merit of their case when they deploy lay strategies (i.e. a translation approach or a literal reading approach) to legal interpretation and case preparation. The survey results lend support to our ethnographic study by revealing why unrepresented litigants seem to be ill-prepared for their cases in the eyes of legal professionals. We conclude that unrepresented litigants face both linguistic and legal challenges during their participation in legal processes, and often these challenges are intertwined. We therefore suggest that both linguistic accommodation and legal assistance are essential to help unrepresented litigants participate effectively in legal processes. This is especially important in the adversarial courtrooms of common law jurisdictions, to ensure access to justice for the general public.

Author Biographies

Matthew W.L. Yeung, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Matthew Yeung is a Lecturer at The School of Professional Education and Executive Development (SPEED), The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). He obtained his PhD in Language and Law from the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest lies in legal bilingualism in Hong Kong with a particular focus on interactions between legal professionals and lay people.

Janny H.C. Leung, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Janny Leung is Professor of English, Programme Director of Law and Literary Studies (BA & LLB), and Associate Dean (for Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts at The University of Hong Kong. She obtained her MPhil and PhD in English and Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge, an LLB from the University of London, and an LLM from Yale Law School. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Yenching Institute, Harvard University, as well as at the Faculty of Law of McGill University (through a Universitas 21 fellowship). She received the Outstanding Young Researcher Award from the University of Hong Kong in 2017/2018.


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How to Cite

Yeung, M. W., & Leung, J. H. (2020). Litigating without speaking legalese: the case of unrepresented litigants in Hong Kong. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 26(2), 231–256.