Pronouncing names correctly

  • April 21, 2023

All people appearing before the courts should be confident that their names will be pronounced correctly. In a letter to the Chief Justices of the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal, the Equality Subcommittee, the Federal Court Bench and Bar Liaison Committee, and the Immigration Law Section (Anti-Racism Committee) of the Canadian Bar Association raise awareness about the impacts of name mispronunciation. They suggest protocols and best practices for courts and beyond.

It’s more than just an issue of comfort or respect. While having one’s name mispronounced can happen to anyone, it significantly impacts racialized minorities, who already face significant barriers to access to justice and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. “Mispronunciation of names contributes to stigma and marginalization by signaling to certain individuals and groups that they do not belong, are less valued, and are not respected,” the letter reads, adding that it also “reinforces their ongoing social and systemic marginalization.”

As the CBA letter notes, this issue “also applies to lawyers who are racialized minorities, many of whom regularly had their name mispronounced throughout law school and in the workplace.”

Having your name pronounced correctly fosters a culture of respect and a sense of belonging, especially when it comes from a person in a position of authority, such as a judge. Making sure that everyone’s name is pronounced properly is one more step towards an inclusive society.

Suggested best practices

One straightforward practical step would be for the court to update standard practices “to include a request for pronunciation, using the syllabic method, of all names when participants are introduced in court.” The presiding judge should be encouraged to request a confirmation if there is any doubt in their mind about proper pronunciation. Confirmation of correct pronunciation should also be done for all counsel and parties and verified by the court clerk ahead of the hearing.

Education of judges and court staff is central to establishing new and better court practices and policies, particularly on cultural competence, unconscious bias and anti-racism. “Understanding why these issues are important equips individuals to internally assess their own practices for misplaced assumptions and unanticipated harmful impacts,” the CBA Sections explain.

As with pronouns, making sure that updated procedures and practices apply to everyone reduces barriers and makes the justice system more inclusive. “If racialized minorities are the only ones confirming the pronunciation of their names, they are still singled out and the burden of ensuring proper pronunciation falls on those who are marginalized.”

And importantly, new and improved policies on correct pronunciation should be made public “so that other courts, lawyers and the public learn from it and have the opportunity to follow the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal’s lead,” the letter concludes.