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Developing Professional Cultural Competence through the Multi-layered Cultural Substrata of FASP: English for Legal Purposes and M. R. Hall’s The Coroner

Construction d’une compétence culturelle professionnelle à travers les multiples substrats culturels de la FASP : l’anglais juridique et The Coroner de M. R. Hall
Shaeda Isani
p. 29-45


Dans le cadre de la didactique des langues et cultures spécialisées du droit, cet article porte sur la construction d’une compétence de culture professionnelle à travers les substrats culturels tissés dans la fibre narrative de la fiction populaire spécialisée, la FASP.
Après une brève présentation du cadrage théorique retenu, du professionnel de droit qu’est le coroner au Royaume Uni et de la FASP juridique qui constitue l’objet d’étude, The Coroner (2009) de M. R. Hall, l’analyse dégage trois domaines culturels en lien avec les objectifs de l’apprentissage : la culture spécifique à l’environnement spécialisé du professionnel qu’est le coroner, le commentaire social enchâssé dans le récit qui se rapporte à la communauté juridique dans son ensemble et, finalement, les cultures relatives aux lieux qui servent d’ancrage géographique au récit fictif.
Pour conclure, l’auteur répond aux réserves souvent exprimées concernant la nature fragmentaire des connaissances acquises par l’intermédiaire de la FASP en mettant en avant les avantages d’une approche heuristique et sémasiologique dans l’exploration des cultures cible et source.

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1In an interdisciplinary approach involving literature, law, intercultural studies and language teaching, this paper proposes to explore how the specialised narrative of certain genres of popular literature can be effectively used to introduce specialists of other disciplines to the specialised cultural environment of the language professional community.

  • 1 “Professionally-based fiction : another means of access to English for Specific Purposes” (our tran (...)

2Language teachers working in the field of specialism-related language learning have long used popular fiction centred on a particular profession as pedagogic supports, a classic example of which is Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series (1933-73) with regard to English for Legal Purposes (ELP). However, it was only in 1999 that this particular body of literature and its use in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) was formally codified by Michel Petit as fiction à substrat professionnel, or FASP, in an article entitled “La fiction à substrat professionnel: une autre voie d’accès à l’anglais de spécialité1. According to Petit’s seminal definition, the sui generis convention of the genre is defined in terms of the fictional construct according to which plot, characters and denouement identify and engage with a specialised environment: “Il en résulte de ce qui a été dit de la profession, du personnage principal et du point de départ de l’histoire que l’intrigue est, dans la FASP, essentiellement de nature endogène : elle se forme à l’intérieur du réel professionnel qui l’engendre.” (1999: 68).

3The substrat professionnel of FASP novels covers a wide scope of professions and specialisations ranging from law (John Grisham, John Mortimer), medicine (Robin Cook, Tess Gerritson), forensics (Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell), journalism (Stieg Larsson, Denise Mina) and art (Iain Pears, Neil Griffiths), amongst others. In addition to the traditional novel, FASP is widely present in other media as well, for example, the cinema (cinematic FASP), or television series (television FASP) or even comic albums (graphic album FASP), thus providing a varied palette of subject-domains and media supports for ESP teachers.

4For teachers working in the more narrowly-defined perspective of immediate needs, English for specific purposes, as presented by Wikipedia in terms of such precisely defined and circumscribed objectives as fire drill instructions for hotel staff or radio communication for air traffic controllers, FASP is not an appropriate teaching support. Such is not the case in the context of English for specialised and/or professional purposes which aims to form professionals capable of functioning not only in the specialised environment of their source professional culture, but also in that related to the target culture. In this context, Michel Petit’s 2002 definition of l’anglais de spécialité underlines the holistic perspective of the triadic approach to ESP studies in France : « [L’anglais de spécialité

5Anglais de spÈcialitÈ

est] la branche de l’anglistique qui traite de la langue, du discours et de la culture des communautés professionnelles et groupes sociaux spécialisés anglophones et de l’enseignement de cet objet2

6Since the identification of the genre in 1999, interest has essentially focused on the didactic use of FASP as a source of access to specialised language and subject-domain knowledge. Recent research, however, has begun to explore the cultural dimension of FASP (Saber 2010), a line of enquiry this paper proposes to pursue by focusing on the cultural substrata of FASP and its potential in developing cultural competence with regard to the target language professional environment.

  • 3 Although this study focuses on English for Legal Purposes, it is clear that the hypotheses underlyi (...)
  • 4 Synopsis : Recently divorced and psychologically fragile, the protagonist Jenny Cooper, a former fa (...)

7After a brief theoretical review of the term “Culture” and the relevant components retained with relevance to this study, the discussion focuses on presumed learner specialism knowledge, a key element with regard to ELP didactics. We then give a brief overview of the FASP protagonist’s profession (Her Majesty’s Coroner), before going on to analyse, with reference to an ELP framework3, the didactic potential offered by the multi-layered cultural substrata woven into the fictional narrative of an English legal FASP novel by M. R. Hall entitled The Coroner (2004)4.

1. Culture

8Culture being a boundless area of academic study, the theoretical framework retained for the purposes of this study focuses on three broad acceptations:

a) High Culture or Culture with a Big “C”

9This acceptation of culture, dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries, concerned those human activities related to intellectual refinement of the mind through the fine arts and the humanities, more specifically Art, classical music, classical literature, etc. Even today, the notion of High Culture remains important since it is, as Ken Gelder (2004) points out, the benchmark against which other less elite forms of culture are implicitly or explicitly measured.

  • 5 In this respect, it is worth noting the irony of the fact that, as Dickens scholars often point out (...)

10FASP, as an essentially popular form of fiction, is often judged against the yardstick of High Culture – and found wanting. ESP teachers, often themselves English literature graduates, frequently voice doubts concerning the appropriacy of using popular fiction, with its deviant language registers and crude representations, instead of the great Classics with their refined language registers and nuanced representations: in other words, why John Grisham’s The Firm and not Dickens’ Bleak House5 in the case of English for Legal Purposes?

11The apologia in favour of classical literature as a teaching support rather than popular fiction takes on new significance when placed in the pedagogic framework of a learner-centred approach. As Hutchinson & Waters (1987) point out in their classic work on ESP, there have been four important stages in ESP didactics: the teacher-centred approach, the language-centred approach, the learner-centred approach and finally, the learning-centred approach. The last two approaches are inherently linked to learner motivation which in turn depends to no small extent on accepting the learner as a person in his own right, with a specific family, social and generational background and related interests, expectations and culture. In the absence of a shared overlap between learner and teacher cultures, it is teachers who, on the basis of their traditional dominant status in the pedagogic situation of communication, choose, impose and prevail, resulting in a top-down approach, a captive audience and, possibly, a personal agenda. The “tyranny of the teacher” is a much discussed syndrome in the field of educational sciences and one of the paradigmatic shifts operated by the introduction of the learner- and learning-centred approaches was to reverse the hegemonic top-down orientation of teacher-centred classes and cultivate a bottom-up, learner-centred approach drawing on the learner’s cultural affinities. In view of this, it becomes clear that if John Grisham is a more effective means of acquiring professional cultural competence, then John Grisham it should be, however understandable the teacher’s personal preference for Charles Dickens.

b) Societal culture

12The 20th century ushered in an interest for the societal aspects of culture with the rise of cultural anthropology and its focus on the shared traditions, attitudes, beliefs, goals and practices which identify a given community and allow its members to live and function together.

13Many attempts have been made to define (and so confine) this vast, amorphous and interdisciplinary field of study as evidenced by the fact that in 1952 Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s pioneering work, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, identified 160 acceptations of the term “culture” related to different areas of social sciences and that in 2006, Baldwin et al. identified over 300 acceptations in their work entitled Redefining Culture, thus attesting to the increasing complexity of this field of enquiry. Within the scope and purpose of this study, and at an admitted risk of over-simplification, societal culture is broadly and pragmatically construed as pertaining to a way of life as shaped by the geographical, historical, political and institutional environment in which it functions, and the related values and preoccupations of its members.

14While English for specific purposes may, to a large extent, be considered as culture-free in terms of societal culture – understanding photocopier manuals and executing instructions are essentially cross-cultural skills which do not require great familiarity with target societal culture –, in the case of English for specialised and professional purposes and the need to reach beyond text and the transactional and engage with the communicative and interactional, familiarity with the societal culture of reference becomes a highly meaningful construct.

15Given the elusiveness and complexity of culture as a construct, the question arises as to whether it is at all possible to transform it into a manageable object of analysis transposable to the comparatively confined parameters of didactics. In view of these antonymic constraints, it becomes clear that an abstract, systemic and theoretical approach would be unfeasible in an ESP context.

c) Professional culture

16Even when reduced to such accessible parameters as the intra-, inter- and extra-professional interlocutors who interact with a particular professional community, its relevant institutions, basic values, modes of functioning, history and traditions, and the issues it is confronted with, professional culture is as complex a construct as societal culture. Specific to the working environment, it is, as discussed elsewhere (Isani 2002), characterised by the convergence of different overlapping areas of personal and professional cultural belonging, a mosaic of idiolectal, social, national, disciplinary and professional cultures. In the case of legal professionals, for example, personal cultural belonging – family, social, ethnic and regional background – co-exists, more or less harmoniously, with professional cultural belonging as shaped by the culture of the discipline (the law), the specialisation (constitutional law, criminal law, intellectual property, corporate law, etc.) and finally, the profession itself (barrister, solicitor, legal consultant, academic, etc.).

17Organisational culture – first identified as “corporate culture” by Silverzweig and Allen in 1976 – is a major component of professional culture. Characterised by the fact that, contrary to societal culture which is based on evolutionary and bottom-up dynamics, organisational culture is an artificially devised construct, often designed by professionals external to the organisation, which is imposed top-down by management with the aim to forge a sense of collective identity and belonging amongst the diversified employees of a given organisation – thus giving a literal dimension to Hofstede’s metaphor of culture as “collective programming of the mind” (1991).

18FASP, like most forms of fiction, is locus-embedded and therefore naturally vectors representations of the societal culture underpinning the professional culture which constitutes the primary focus of the narrative: although Lee Harper’s classic To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) and John Grisham’s more contemporary legal FASP project highly divergent representations of the professional culture of law professionals in the United States, the “locus-focus” of both narratives is deeply embedded in the societal culture of the South, reflecting not only its daily way of life but also its values, tensions and preoccupations; in the same vein, the professional culture of newspaper journalism as depicted in Denise Mina’s journalism FASP is deeply rooted in the societal culture of Glasgow in general and its Irish diaspora in particular. As such, in view of its reflection of the multi-layered nature of culture, FASP can prove to be an effective means of introducing learners to the target culture of their future professional environment within the framework of its wider cultural embedding.

2. English for Legal Purposes: presumed learner specialism knowledge

19One marked characteristic which sets English for Legal Purposes apart other disciplinary areas of ESP is the culture-specific nature of the subject domain: in the case of disciplines belonging to the hard sciences such as mathematics, medicine, chemistry, geography, etc., or even some of the softer sciences as history and art, the body of factual knowledge which defines the discipline remains an invariable construct, irrespective of the language or culture it emerges from or is transposed to, of source and target language considerations.

20In terms of ESP didactics, specialism knowledge as an invariable construct plays a major role with regard to presumed learner specialism knowledge and the dynamics of content input/output essential for learner/teacher interactional symmetry and the teacher-learner tandem approach based on the teacher being the target language reference and the learner the specialism content reference.

21The didactic parameter of presumed learner specialism knowledge becomes void with regard to the field of law since the body of factual knowledge by which it is defined is nation- and culture-specific and therefore a highly variable construct. In terms of ELP didactics, this constitutes a paradigmatic shift in defining the givens of the pedagogic situation in that the learner, otherwise represented as the potential reference concerning subject-domain, can provide little content input with regard to target language specialism content (Isani, forthcoming). Since teachers of English are generally not domain-subject specialists, the pedagogic situation is often marked by an awkward vacuum in this respect.

22Fortunately, one way out of this didactic impasse lies in the fact that, contrary to mathematics and astrophysics, several domains of the law belong to the area of knowledge commonly shared by members of the lay public, which enables the ELP teacher to aim for the level of knowledge expected of a native “college educated layman”. As such, and viewed in the framework of needs analysis, law students are essentially taught ELP with a view to acquiring the linguistic and cultural skills necessary to be able to function adequately in the target professional environment at socio-professional level, rather than as future legal professionals required to plead in Her Majesty’s Courts. And it is in this context that awareness of and familiarity with target professional culture, as defined supra, becomes meaningful.

3. Her Majesty’s Coroner: a brief overview

23One way of apprehending a given professional culture is through its human dimension, i.e. the professionals who shape, vector and perpetuate the values the community identifies with. In this respect, common law tradition is a rich line of enquiry since its professionals, whose origins go back several hundred years, differ considerably from those of other legal cultures, even such relatively close cultures as the Romano-Germanic “civil law” tradition of many Continental European countries. Given the culture-specific nature of such common law professionals as barristers, solicitors and coroners, most attempts at comparative analyses inevitably conclude on the limitations of such endeavours and the need to understand them within the framework of their own legal culture.

24While barristers and solicitors, due no doubt to their more charismatic roles as defenders of justice in open court and their relations with the lay public, have long been at the foreground of media attention – and pedagogic enquiry as evidenced by the pages devoted to them in ELP textbooks –, the more discreet office of the coroner has tended to generate less interest. The coroner is consequently a legal professional the lay public knows relatively little about, as evidenced by a review of M. R. Hall’s novel The Coroner (2009) posted by reader L. J. Roberts (2010): “I have often read about coroners, but never really understood their role, responsibilities and the extent of their authority. How nice to finally find an author who not only focuses on that role, as pertains to the UK, but makes it really interesting.”

25One of the oldest legal professions in England and Wales, the Coroner’s Office was initially created in 1194 to collect revenues for the Crown. However, given the continuing tensions between colonised and coloniser in Norman England, the functions of the office evolved towards its current focus on the investigation of unexpected death:

  • 6 This period of history provides the timeframe for Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series of novels in (...)

After the Norman Conquest, to deter the local communities from a continuing habit of killing Normans, a heavy fine was levied on any village where a dead body was discovered, on the assumption that it was presumed to be Norman, unless it could be proved to be English. The fine was known as the ‘Murdrum’, from which the word ‘murder’ is derived and, as the system developed, many of the early coroners’ inquests dealt with the ‘Presumption of Normanry’ which could only be rebutted by the local community, and a fine thus avoided, by the ‘Presentment of Englishry’.6 (The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales)

26Over the centuries, the Coroner’s Office has undergone many changes and in recent years, the Harold Shipman affair and resulting Shipman Inquiry (2003) have once again thrust the role of the Coroner’s Office and the need for overhauling the institution into the limelight, resulting in extensive public and professional consultation and the passing of The Coroners and Justice Act by Parliament in November 2009.

27In spite of the recent media attention, the general public still remains relatively unclear about the role of this legal professional. Like the rest of the judiciary in England and Wales, the notion of a “career coroner” does not exist: the official comes to the function in his capacity as a medical or legal professional:

3. Coroners are independent judicial officers. They are barristers, solicitors or medical practitioners of not less than five years standing (S.2 Coroners Act 1988 (“CA”). When not engaged in their coronial duties, coroners (other than whole-time coroners) continue in their legal or medical practices. (The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales)

28However, behind this apparently single-purpose finality lies a complex institution as the UK Ministry of Justice definition suggests:

Coroners are independent judicial officers appointed and paid for by the relevant local authorities who are responsible for investigating violent, unnatural or sudden deaths of unknown cause and deaths in custody that are reported to them. (UK Ministry of Justice)

29To this list must be added the deaths of British nationals occurring abroad or on foreign ships or aircraft, a category which focused attention on the Coroner’s Office in the wake of the heavy media coverage of the coroner’s role in the inquests regarding Diana, Princess of Wales and British servicemen killed in Iraq.

30Reading in between the lines of the above definition of the coroner’s profession reveals the underlying tension zones inherent to the exercise of the function : though “an independent judicial officer” who reports to the Crown, the coroner is appointed and paid by the “relevant local authorities”. Moreover, coroners depend on the local authorities for premises, office equipment, running expenses and, perhaps most importantly, the coroner’s officer(s), as indicated by the The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales, which represents the approximately 110 coronial jurisdictions – or “districts” – in England and Wales :

A coroner is not a local government officer although the “relevant council” (a local authority, normally the county council): (a) appoints him (S.1 CA) and; (b) pays him (S.3(1) and Sch.1 CA); and (c) is responsible for providing him with suitable premises from which his duties of office are conducted and with the necessary support, personnel and financial resources (Ss.24-27 CA). (The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales)

31The coroner’s financial and material dependence on the local authorities raises questions regarding the independence of the office. This is clearly an issue of primary concern to the profession given that official website of The Coroners’ Society for England and Wales devotes an entire clause to the affirmation of its independence from local authorities :

5. Following his appointment, the coroner is not under the control of the relevant council but is independent of them. He is not capable of being dismissed or disciplined by them. […] He is entitled to continue in his appointment until he attains the age of 70, and thereafter, from year to year, by mutual agreement with the relevant council. (The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales)

32Other elements which underline the independence – and specificity – of the coronial office is the distinct nature of its proceedings in the form of the sui generis hearing, the inquest, the purpose of which is

to determine who the deceased person was, how, when and where the individual died but not why. It is an enquiry to ascertain the facts concerning a death and does not apportion blame on any individual. (The Coroner’s Court Support Service)

33The proceedings of the inquest – possible empanelling of a jury, hearing of evidence, calling and questioning witnesses, delivering a verdict – are similar to those of traditional court hearings except for the distinct nature of the verdict which, in light of the function of the coroner, is limited to the nature of the demise: death by misdemeanour, death by accident, death by natural causes, death by unlawful killing, suicide, etc., or, in case of doubt, an open verdict.

34If the common law tradition in Europe remained largely confined to the British Isles, the history of English colonial expansion led to its spread over the rest of the world – Africa, America, Asia and Australasia – along with its laws, institutions and legal professionals, including the coroner. Though the functions of the coroner in such countries as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, etc., have remained essentially the same, the name of the official has undergone changes and in some countries, like the United States, coroners have been progressively replaced by the ‘medical examiner’ – the protagonist of Patricia Cornwell’s forensics FASP, Dr Kay Scarpetta – while in other countries, like Canada for instance, coroners and medical examiners cohabit according to provinces and jurisdictions. In a similar trend, the 2009 Coroner’s Act, due for implementation in 2012, aims to overhaul the coronial office in England, Wales and Northern Ireland through greater integration of medical, forensic and legal branches, as is the case in Australia and the United States.

4. Developing professional cultural competence: the multi-layered cultural substrata of legal FASP

35As discussed elsewhere (Isani 2002), when confronted with an object of study as multi-layered, amorphous and protean as professional culture, it has proved helpful, for purposes of analysis, to distinguish between societal cultures built upon strata deriving from idiolectal, community, regional, national cultures, on the one hand, and professional culture which is an acquired and therefore grafted culture derived from vocational and organisational cultures. What is important to retain from this conceptual division is that if societal culture is, in many aspects, related to locus and often interpreted in terms of national culture, professional culture, though specific to a much smaller community, is supra-national and as such, supersedes societal and national cultures in the exercise of a profession. The professional culture of common law tradition is one such instance as evidenced by the fact that barristers and solicitors, whether in Africa and Asia or England and Wales, often have a shared professional culture in spite of belonging to distant societal and/or national cultures.

36As discussed earlier, professional cultural competence may be simply defined as the capacity to function in a given professional environment. In addition to the specialist knowledge which defines the community, this capacity also includes familiarity with its history and institutions and the symbols, heroes, rituals, values and expected behaviours recognised and shared by all members. As such, developing cultural professional competence in ESP seeks to provide learners with the cultural awareness and skills necessary to communicate and interact as active members of a given professional community. In this perspective, a narrowly defined, culture-free, needs-driven approach may be seen as an in vitro approach, however effective it may be in satisfying short-term, limited objectives. Conversely, the acquisition of specialised discourse in the context of its specialised and national cultures tends towards a more in vivo approach, more suitable for learners called upon to integrate an international professional community.

  • 7 For the academic year 2009-2010, the legal FASP supports proposed were the film Witness for the Pro (...)

37It is with this objective in mind that M. R. Hall’s The Coroner (2009) was proposed as a pedagogic support in the framework of ELP classes for 3rd year trilingual law students doing a joint degree programme in languages and law. After a theoretical curriculum related to common law institutions and professionals, students working in pairs are provided with a list of legal FASP books and films7 related to the UK or the US and required to identify, with the help of an analysis grid, the cultural elements related to (a) the professional environment of the coroner, (b) social commentary related to broader legal issues, and (c) locus-related societal culture as perceived through the novel.

4.1. M. R. Hall’s The Coroner (2009)

38Legal FASP is a popular genre which further sub-divides into lawyer FASP, judiciary FASP, police procedural FASP, forensics FASP and coronial FASP, with police procedural and lawyer FASP dominating the scene. As a reflection of the relatively backwater role played by English coroners in real life, contemporary fictional narratives tend to foreground the scientific exploits of the forensic arm of the Coroner’s Office rather than the coroner himself.

39The Coroner is the first in M. R. Hall’s Jenny Cooper coroner series (followed by The Disappeared in 2010 and a third forthcoming). It is a classic legal FASP, which conforms to the defining generic conventions of FASP as codified by Michel Petit (1999) in that it is a contemporary, popular thriller in which the protagonists, plot dynamics and denouement derive from the substrat professionnel of the UK Coroner’s Office. The author also conforms to the profile of the professionnel-auteur in that he is a former criminal barrister who practised in the UK for a number of years before turning to fiction. As such, The Coroner abounds in the detailed and accurate insider knowledge of l’environnement specialisé inherent to quality FASP, as confirmed by reviewer Maxine Clarke in the online Euro Crime book review site: The Coroner is a marvellous book replete with authentic details – about the coroner’s role, the court and the bureaucratic and political day-to-day manoeuvrings of the job.” 8

40The novel is set in contemporary England and Wales and centres on Jenny Cooper, H.M. Coroner, Severn Vale District, described by the author as “darkly complicated” 9. A former lawyer in family law, she takes up a new position as coroner in Severn Vale District, on the English side of the Bristol Channel which forms the England-Wales border. Far from finding the job the sine-cure she expected, Jenny must confront a backlog of suspicious deaths, a hostile working environment, and powerful vested interests. The storyline focuses on three concurrent strands of the protagonist’s life, her job, her son and divorced husband, and the new man in her life. However, it is clearly the professional dimension, the substrat professionnel, which shapes and fuels the plot dynamics of the novel.

4.2 Multi-layered cultural substrata in The Coroner

a) Professional culture

41The unique status of the legal professional that is the coroner is a leitmotiv which runs throughout the narrative fabric of this coronial FASP, starting with a simple explanatory declarative, “You see, the job of the coroner is to determine the cause of death.” (p. 47), followed a little later by an affirmative regarding the professional qualities inherent to the office, “She was the coroner, an impartial, clear-headed, determined investigator of death.” (p. 168), to conclude on an exalted, quasi-mystical note, “I am a coroner. I spend my life putting things to rest.” (p. 420)

42As mentioned earlier, a primary component of professional culture is its human dimension, the professionals themselves, but also the various inter- and extra-professional interlocutors they are called upon to interact with in the line of their professional duties, such as barristers, solicitors, process-servers, ushers, police officials, pathologists, forensic experts, etc., not to mention the lay public. As judicial officers of the Crown, coroners have judicial and investigative functions which cause this relatively unknown legal professional to be assimilated with the judiciary and with the police by the very lay public they serve, misrepresentations which the fictional narrative seeks to redress:

Fig. 1

The Police

Sorting her mail, Jenny said, ‘The difference between the police and the coroner is that the police chase convictions, the coroner chases the truth. One doesn’t necessarily follow from the other.’ (pp. 59-60)

Jenny said, ‘This is nothing to do with the offence for which you have been arrested tonight, Miss Johnson, and I’m nothing to do with the police. My job is to find out how peopled died.’ (pp. 280-81)

The Judiciary

He said, ‘How does it feel being a coroner? I must say, it’s a not a job I ever imagined you in. You always said you never wanted to be a judge.’
‘It’s nothing like being a judge. I’m more of an investigator. Judges referee arguments. I have to find the truth.’ (p. 145)

Her job was not to judge and condemn a criminal, but to discover, in so far as possible, what had caused a young vulnerable and confused soul to make an unhappy and untimely departure from his earthly body. (p. 414)

Coroner ≠ Police and Judiciary

(Excerpts from M. R. Hall’s The Coroner, 2009)

43Likewise, the procedure and proceedings of the inquest, the hearing specific to the Coroner’s Office in the case of violent or unnatural death, are also embedded into the fictional narrative. At the outset, through the auctorial strategy of the specialist omniscient narrator common in FASP, the author is at pains to clarify any possible misrepresentations between an inquest and other judicial hearings:

She sat at her desk and turned through the pages of cross-examination notes she had carefully prepared. Unlike a regular criminal or civil court, a coroner’s inquest was not a competition between competing cases. It was an inquiry, led by the coroner, into circumstances surrounding a death. The coroner questioned all witnesses personally before allowing other interested parties to cross-examine. The rules of evidence were very relaxed. Leading questions and hearsay were perfectly permissible. The single objective was to unearth the truth. (p. 94)

44To counter the humdrum nature of the proceedings of an inquest, the author’s specialist-knowledge enables him to introduce special proceedings which liven up the inquest and therefore, the narrative. One such example is the empanelling of an 8-member jury, a procedure now rare in England and Wales except in the case of certain categories of death, as for example, death during police custody or in prison, the latter being the case under investigation by the fictional coroner. The following excerpt illustrates how narrative blends with auctorial didactic discourse designed to enlighten the lay reader:

Her nerves steadied by 30 mg of temazepan, she opened the inquest by outlining the bare facts of Danny Wills’s death. […] Their job was now to listen to evidence and to decide when, where and how Danny had met his death. Possible verdicts might include accident – a completely unintended occurrence with a fatal effect; misadventure – a risk deliberately taken which led unintentionally to death; suicide; unlawful killing; an open verdict (where the evidence doesn’t lead to a definite conclusion); and neglect – a gross failure to provide the basic necessities of life, including medical attention, to a person in a dependent position. (p. 249)

45In addition to the proceedings and procedure of an inquest, the fictional narrative provides a glimpse into such other areas of the Coroner’s Office as coronial law – embodied in “the Jervis, the coroner’s standard textbook and Bible” (p. 19) –, the nature of the coroner’s court and its premises, the coroner’s officer(s), the coroner’s jurisdiction and powers. And it is the fictionalisation of this latter point – the power struggle generated between the coroner’s powers on the one hand, and the vested interests of other local public and private professional communities, on the other – which affords one of the most significant insights into the coroner’s cultural environment as represented through the fictional narrative:

Fig. 2

The police

[Alison Trent, Coroner’s officer and former police officer, had until now, worked for the Coroner from an office located at the police station.]
‘I don’t work from here. My office is at the police station. […] I’m ex-CID. Perk of the job – they give me an office. […] I suppose I should let you settle in before dumping any files on you,’ Alison said. ‘Not that there’s much on at the moment – just the usual from the hospital, a couple of road deaths.’
‘You can’t have been signing death certificates?’
‘Not personally. I phone Mr Hamer, the deputy in Bristol Central. He’s been giving the OK and I pp them for him.’
‘I see,’ Jenny said, forming a picture of the cosy arrangement. A deputy coroner in another part of the city, not even troubling to look at the files, taking the word of a retired police officer that no further investigation was required. (p. 15)

Local authorities

‘Coroners are under so much pressure to investigate every unnatural death thoroughly, we simply can’t afford to cut corners.’ She went for the kill. ‘But quite frankly, I can’t see that my discussions with the pathology department at the Vale are any of your [local authority, Head of legal services] concern.’
‘My department pays for the coroner. It’s everything to do with me.’
‘I think you’ll find the law is against you on that.’ (p. 85)

Prison authorities

It was only decent to have Alison phone ahead to give the staff at Portshead Farm [the private prison facility for juvenile offenders where the death occurred] half an hour’s notice of her arrival. […] Her visit was irregular – coroners did not often visit the scene of a death and even less frequently presented themselves anywhere without an appointment – but she was within her legal rights. The wide-ranging common law powers of the coroner to investigate the cause of death entitled her to insist, with police back-up if necessary, on full cooperation from all potential witnesses and unlimited access to all relevant evidence. (p. 232)

Powers of a coroner and conflict of interest

(Excerpts from M. R. Hall’s The Coroner, 2009)

46In an auctorial strategy characteristic of the historical novel, the author gives substance to the fictional version of such issues by referring to the heavily mediatised real-life events they mirror and with which the British lay readership is largely familiar:

Coroners had caused a lot of headaches in the recent past, the Princess Diana inquest had dragged on for more than ten years and got through five coroners, and the Oxfordshire coroner who dared to investigate the deaths of British servicemen whose bodies were flown back to his patch from Iraq found that the bodies were instead landed in the jurisdictions of colleagues more willing to accept the army’s explanations. (p. 226)

47It is in such instances that we observe the power of fictional narrative and its liberty to override the reserve inherent to official documents whose formal nature and function inhibit overt reference to such volatile issues, allowing, at best, for oblique references as may be observed, for example, in those issued by The Coroners Society (supra §3).

b) Social commentary on broader legal issues

48FASP also represents, directly or indirectly, the larger issues faced by the professional community as a whole. In the case of this coronial FASP, the incarceration of children is the object of particularly scathing criticism – “While child custody had virtually ceased in some parts of Europe, Britain’s appetite for incarcerating children was increasing. Over four thousand were currently imprisoned, nearly five times the number of its nearest rival, France” (p. 33) – as is the government decision to privatise prison facilities for youth offenders. Portshead Farm – “a little piece of urban hell in the English countryside” (p. 232) – the strand which binds the two victims together, is at the core of plot dynamics and the denouement.

49Through the fictional depiction of the Coroner’s Office, the author also raises contemporary socio-professional issues of interest to the legal community as a whole: the fictional Portshead Farm is a severe indictment not only of the government’s privatisation of the prison system but also of society’s failure with regard to a lost generation of young people, whether from dysfunctional single parent homes such as Danny Willis or conventional backgrounds as Katy Taylor.

50Substance dependence is another area of social commentary reflected in this coronial FASP. Drugs, whether medicinal or not, circulate freely throughout the narrative and cut across all social classes. The protagonist’s own heavy double dependence on temazepan and cheap wine is mirrored in an astonishing number of characters: the young boys who deal in drugs, the young girls on the estate who sell sex to feed their habit, and in this respect the murder of young and beautiful Katy Taylor through a deliberate overdose of cocaine can be seen as a powerful metaphor for social infanticide; the protagonist’s own teenage son, Ross, child of well to-do professionals, is excluded from school for possession of drugs; and finally, the new man in her life makes little secret of his fondness for the weed.

c) Locus-related culture

51As seen earlier, professional cultural environment is also affected and shaped by the wider cultural stakes of national identity and the intercultural tensions generated by the geographical proximity of two cultures, however close they may be. The Coroner is imbued with a sense of place heightened by the proximity of Wales, a different culture and political entity and, more importantly in the context of this study, a different jurisdiction. Though English herself, the protagonist embodies this bi-cultural identity since she works in Bristol under English jurisdiction but lives in a Welsh hamlet. The old Severn Bridge she crosses to and from work everyday not only represents the geographical and cultural divide between the two political entities but also between the grim thanatologic reality of her professional life and the bucolic haven of her personal life. But the dividing line blurs and her private Welsh refuge is invaded by the brutalities of her English office. As a result, the proximity of and rivalry between the two jurisdictions become a critical element in the evolution of the plot: when the English authorities attempt to scuttle the inquiry by having the coroner physically neutralised, it is the Welsh authorities who, for purely politically-motivated reasons, rescue not only the coroner but the inquiry as well by arranging for the inquest to take place in Welsh jurisdiction, a change of venue that is vital to the denouement:

[Detective Sergeant Owen Williams from Chepstow, Wales] nodded. [...]. ‘You see, what concerns me is the jurisdictional issue. Obviously, […] our colleagues in England haven’t chosen to investigate the death of Miss Taylor with what you might call appropriate rigour—’
‘I’d guess that was a political rather than a police issue. We’re talking millions of pounds’ worth of prison-building contracts.’
‘Very few of them in Wales, I’m sure.’ […]
Williams tilted his head, patient. ‘Which police force investigates what crime can be a thorny issue. If what you’re telling me is true, I’m sure both of us would like to avoid the situation where the Bristol police are charged with investigating all these matters. Not that I’m in any way a racist, you understand, but I wouldn’t trust those English bastards further than I could pee.’ (p. 367)

52In a broader perspective, the narrative also raises a number of social issues relative to contemporary Britain, amongst which may be mentioned the debate regarding public versus private schools, contemporary gender issues, or again, the question of work and life balance, as seen in the contrast between the two men in the protagonist’s life, her ex-husband, a highly successful, status-conscious cardiac surgeon and Steve, a drop out from architecture school, content to grow his own vegetables and do odd-jobs in the village.

53In view of these elements and to sum up this analysis, we hope we have demonstrated that a well-chosen FASP can reflect multi-layered, richly diversified cultural substrata: viewed in terms of concentric circles, the core may be seen as representing the culture specific to the particular profession depicted, which spreads, in widening circles, to the culture of the legal community as a whole, to finally merge with the regional and national cultures which shape and define the inner circles – thus confirming that FASP can prove to be an invaluable pedagogic tool in constructing the learner’s intercultural professional competence with regard to his future professional environment.


54In conclusion, we would like to briefly address a frequently expressed reservation by teachers working in a university ESP environment who feel that apprehending a professional culture through a novel leads to the acquisition of a medley of perhaps interesting but random items of knowledge. A structured and more methodically guided approach through sequentially structured lectures would, they argue, allow the learner to acquire a more systemic view of culture as a coherent whole rather than a set of fragmentary “bits” of knowledge.

55FASP-derived knowledge is undeniably partial and finite. Such is, however, the nature of most non-specialist knowledge. More specifically in the ESP context, reservations of this kind raise a number of questions related to such fundamental didactic precepts as the importance of learner- and learning-centred approaches, of teaching “tools” (processes) rather than “things” (products), of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, etc. In the light of such didactic considerations, the use of FASP in ESP classes may be viewed in the perspective of a heuristic and semasiological approach which arouses learners’ curiosity and incites them to delve deeper and seek further of their own volition. Such dynamics extend beyond the confines of set curricula and we note that certain items in student feedback concerned interrogations about what the equivalent of the Coroner’s Office in France could be – a perfect example of the reverse process frequently documented in intercultural studies whereby target culture discoveries lead to probing into and discovery of source professional culture.

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1 “Professionally-based fiction : another means of access to English for Specific Purposes” (our translation).

2 My emphases.

3 Although this study focuses on English for Legal Purposes, it is clear that the hypotheses underlying the analysis are transposable to other subject-domains as well.

4 Synopsis : Recently divorced and psychologically fragile, the protagonist Jenny Cooper, a former family lawyer, begins her new job as Coroner in Severn Vale District, on the English side of the Wales-Bristol border. Two cases retain her attention : Katy Taylor, a teenage girl found dead in a remote spot after an overdose, and Danny Willis who committed suicide in a prison for juvenile offenders. Jenny’s quest for the truth is thwarted by professional vested interests ranging from the pathologist, the local councillor, the police, the social worker and even, at times, her own officer.

5 In this respect, it is worth noting the irony of the fact that, as Dickens scholars often point out, Bleak House was published between 1852 and 1853 in 20 monthly instalments in the form of that most vulgar and popular of fiction genres, “the penny dreadful”.

6 This period of history provides the timeframe for Bernard Knight’s Crowner John series of novels in which the protagonist is Sir John de Wolfe, a coroner who holds office in Exeter around the late 12th century.

7 For the academic year 2009-2010, the legal FASP supports proposed were the film Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and the novel The Coroner (2009) by M. R. Hall with regard to British legal culture, the novel To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) by Harper Lee and the film Philadelphia (1993) with regard to American legal culture.


9 Retrieved 19/12/10

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Shaeda Isani, « Developing Professional Cultural Competence through the Multi-layered Cultural Substrata of FASP: English for Legal Purposes and M. R. Hall’s The Coroner »Cahiers de l’APLIUT, Vol. XXX N° 2 | 2011, 29-45.

Référence électronique

Shaeda Isani, « Developing Professional Cultural Competence through the Multi-layered Cultural Substrata of FASP: English for Legal Purposes and M. R. Hall’s The Coroner »Cahiers de l’APLIUT [En ligne], Vol. XXX N° 2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 12 avril 2012, consulté le 08 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Shaeda Isani

Shaeda Isani est Professeur des Universités à l’Université Stendhal Grenoble 3 où elle enseigne dans le département d’anglais appliqué de la filière LEA. Ses domaines de recherche sont la didactique des langues et cultures spécialisées.

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