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Lost in translation: issues newcomers to Canada may experience when facing litigation

Song Xue, a commercial litigation lawyer with the full-service Vancouver law firm Harper Grey LLP, bridges cultural differences to help newcomer business professionals effectively navigate the Canadian legal system
Song Xue, commercial litigation lawyer with the Vancouver firm Harper Grey LLP

It can be challenging to understand the business and legal contexts of a new country as a newcomer. Over the past three decades, many Chinese (Mandarin) speaking newcomers have come to Canada for business purposes. They operated and may still be operating successful businesses in China and have extensive business experience in their country of origin.

Although their English language proficiency varies, the great majority of these newcomers rely on translation, at least for complicated matters. Few of them have had significant Canadian business experiences before becoming landed newcomers in Canada.

Lack of experience or knowledge regarding the Canadian business context can lead to problems when a newcomer relies on their experience in China to inform their business dealings in Canada. They may turn to existing personal relationships for guidance rather than establishing new professional relationships, seek advice regarding legal issues from friendly contacts instead of consulting a Canadian lawyer, or interpret business transactions in Canada by referring to comparable transactions in China – despite significant differences in the customary practices or laws between the two jurisdictions.

Song Xue, a commercial litigation lawyer with the Vancouver firm Harper Grey LLP, has seen firsthand how deals can go sideways and business relationships collapse when Chinese practices are applied to Canadian business dealings.

Song works closely with Harper Grey’s Commercial Litigation Group Co-Chair, Roselle Wu, to cater to the unique needs of his newcomer clients. “My approach is to introduce my clients to the essential doctrines and legal principles at play so that they better understand the legal advice received,” Song says. “My clients benefit from my experience having lived and worked in China. I am better able to understand their unique situations and to support them in effectively navigating the Canadian legal system.”

“Our Commercial Litigation Group has vast experience working with varied and unique clients,” adds Wu. “We approach each and every file with a fresh perspective in an effort to best understand each client’s specific needs.” 

Song points to some common pitfalls he has encountered while working with newcomer clients. 

“They may give less attention to signing a legal document or keeping written records, even on significant business dealings,” Song explains. “As well, clients sometimes fail to seek legal advice before entering into a contract, even if they do not understand it. Quite often, they fail to learn about shareholder protections before becoming a shareholder in a B.C. or Canadian corporation.”

Song has seen newcomers take a conciliatory stance when a dispute initially arises. “Sometimes a newcomer client may receive a request from the opposing party that the client does not really like, but not knowing its legal risks, the client may give in to the request as a sacrifice for maintaining the relationship. At other times, not aware of the severity of an emerging issue, a newcomer client may not take any active steps to address the issue, hoping that it may go away,” he says. “When the tension heightens, the client may try to negotiate a way out on their own or through a mutual friend rather than seek legal advice.”

Newcomers seeking legal advice may face challenges in communication with a Canadian lawyer. A lack of English proficiency usually plays some role in such challenges. The differences in backgrounds and experience can pose a more significant barrier to effective communication between a lawyer and a client. In these instances, nuanced information vital to the case may get lost in this gap.

“I bridge this gap with my clients by focusing on helping them tell their full story,” says Song.

From Song’s experience, for a B.C. lawyer to effectively communicate with a newcomer client, the lawyer must lead the process of assessing the underlying facts, manage the client’s expectations and not shy away from questioning anything that is not absolutely clear, which takes patience and time. It also helps for the lawyer to have an understanding of the client’s cultural background.

If you would like to learn more about how to effectively navigate the Canadian legal system, contact Song Xue directly by email at [email protected] or by phone at 604-895-3051.