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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton April 19, 2017

“You have to teach the judge what to do”: Semiotic gaps between unrepresented litigants and the common law

  • Matthew W. L Yeung EMAIL logo and Janny H. C Leung
From the journal Semiotica


The courtroom can be seen as a semiotic space where the practice of signs is institutionalized. There are specific ways to perform signs in court, be they verbal (e. g., turn-taking) or nonverbal (e. g., attire). Legal signs communicate and signify differently than their non-legal counterparts. Laypeople may not be aware of such differences, and may encounter a gap between their expectation and the actual practice of legal signs. This is precisely the case for unrepresented litigants, laypeople who go to court without legal counsel, whose understanding and practice of signs usually differ from legal ones given their limited exposure to legal knowledge and culture. This paper examines unrepresented litigants’ lay practice of signs in Hong Kong courtrooms, and analyses how it clashes with that used by legal professionals. Our data consist of courtroom observations of 54 Cantonese case managements and 13 Cantonese trials in district courts in Hong Kong, 10 interviews with unrepresented litigants and 6 relevant judgments. The paper shows that the differences in the use of semiotics often place laypeople as out-group members of the law and may limit their access to justice. Our analysis will contribute to an understanding of laypeople’s behavior in the courtroom, which in turn bridges the communication gap between laypeople and legal professionals in common law jurisdictions.


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Published Online: 2017-4-19
Published in Print: 2017-5-24

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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