New Zealand Law Society - Getting that name correct

Getting that name correct

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My name may appear to be pretty straightforward. But that hasn’t stopped me from being called Stephen or Mr Craig innumerable times. I am sure Bond actor Daniel Craig experiences the same.

Nevertheless, getting names correct is crucial. Plane travellers, for example, might find themselves stranded in the terminal if the name on their passport is slightly different to the one on the ticket.

In the legal profession there are other ramifications if names are used wrongly. In 2015 the Chief High Court, Justice Geoffrey Venning, was prompted to remind lawyers to ensure they address individuals appropriately and respectfully, both in pleadings and in court.

Justice Venning noted that inconsistent practice regarding intitulements of pleadings and the way that parties are referred to, both in written submissions and orally, has potential to cause confusion in legal proceedings.

Crucial to get names right

Royal Reed is the managing director of Auckland-based Prestige Law, a multilingual law firm specialising in cross-cultural dispute resolution.

Ms Reed, who is originally from Taiwan, says it is crucial to get people’s names right.

“I have often seen judgments where the names have been put the wrong way round or mixed up, so it looks as if you are actually publishing a document about a completely different person. If this was about a wrongdoing and the names are incorrect the person who has done the wrongful action would be feeling relieved as the communication says someone else has ‘done’ the bad deed.

“When a name is put differently it doesn’t have to be a big mistake to be fundamentally different.

“If the name of the person in an important case is, say, Li but has been spelt Lu that might only be one letter but it could refer to a completely different person. It just shows a really unfortunate lack in the care that we are expected to uphold in this industry. So, for a client to see that we don’t even care enough to check how the name should be presented, that shows a willingness to ignore the expectation and feelings of people who are coming to us. It’s about showing respect to people.”

Tips on correct address

In an attempt to address name butchering the Law Society updated a website Practice Briefing a year ago with tips on how to correctly address Asian clients.

The briefing (Correctly addressing parties, counsel and witnesses of Asian descent) noted that many names of Asian origin comprise a surname/family name, which is usually monosyllabic, followed by a given/personal name, which is usually longer. Most Chinese, for example, use personal titles/honorifics such as Mr and Mrs followed by their surname and then their personal name/s.

So, in the traditional Eastern order, Craig Stephen would be referred to as Mr Stephen Craig.

Ms Reed says the style is the same for Korean names, hence the South Korean president Moon Jae-In being referred to as Mr Moon. The name reversal also applies to Japanese names. In business circles in Japan first names are rarely used.

For Vietnamese people it is a little more complex and names are written in this order: surname, middle name, first name.

With Indian and South Asian names, the second name is the surname.

Asian people may sometimes adopt Western names but do not go through the legal process of changing their name. Practitioners should therefore ensure that legal documents contain the client’s legal name, as indicated on a passport or driver’s licence.

Stronger line needed on incorrect use

Royal Reed says the profession needs to take a stronger line against the incorrect use of names.

“With the increase in legal professionals from Asian backgrounds, the legal system needs to have a greater appreciation of Asian names and to prioritise the correct use of them,” says Ms Reed.

“It is not good enough to be resorting back to generic phrases such as ‘counsel’, simply because it may be embarrassing to say the name wrong. The less we use these names, the more hurdles they become to us, and it can subconsciously affect our ability to operate with fairness when we secretly hope to avoid having to deal with them simply for the names sake.”

Confusion over names isn’t restricted to the legal profession. Last year the Asia New Zealand Foundation released a report New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples 2017 Annual Survey which found that Kiwis’ knowledge of Asia is low despite the proximity of New Zealand to the continent and the large number of Asian people living here.

The research shows that New Zealanders “have relatively low levels of self-assessed knowledge about Asia, less than what they claim to know about Australia, Europe, North America and the South Pacific. Six out of 10 continue to say they know little about Asia.”

Law Society information shows that 8.2% of New Zealand lawyers are of Asian descent. In 2013, almost one in every four people living in the Auckland region identified with at least one Asian ethic group. Results of the 2018 census will now not be released until 2019, but there is expected to be a big increase in the proportion of people with Asian ethnicity.

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