Trends in Digital Recording

By Mike Grohs, Contributing Editor
Everyone who has ever seen a TV show or movie set in a courtroom knows that the process includes a court reporter. They are as familiar to the scene as the judge, the bailiff, and the nervous defendant, but many lay people, if asked, might not know why or how important it is to have an accurate written transcript of the proceedings. The goal, says Fred Lederer, director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology (CLCT), is to have “a 100 percent accurate text manuscript.” The reason is usually that the court cares about the transcript for appellate reasons—though not everyone appeals. If a court uses only digital recording, it is inexpensive.

With a transcript, it is expensive either way.
There are official reporters who are hired by the court system. There are freelance reporters who are often hired for depositions. The problem, says Lederer, is that the system is running out of court reporters. The 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook Report commissioned by the National Court Reporters Association found that as a result of increased legal activity, decreased enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters, and a rapid retirement rate will create a shortfall projected to represent nearly 5,500 court reporting positions by 2018. It is a concern for the courts. In one situation, in July 2017, the Tennessee Supreme Court created a task force comprised of judges, clerks, and court reporters to study the shortage in criminal courts.
Court reporting is an important function that requires skilled people. Back in the day, it began with shorthand. Shorthand became stenography. At one point people realized that they could tape the audio at trials and proceedings, but that ran into problems because it was not always clear who was talking (or yelling), or extraneous noise such as traffic was picked up. Soon there were voice writers, and later users could get computers to recognize a speaking voice and have real-time voice reporting. Analog gave way to digital, in which files can be sent across the Internet, and the system can also be checked remotely to see if it is operating correctly.
Alan Bartholomew, founder of SoniClear of Pasadena, Calif., notes that his organization turned to digital recording in the early 2000s. Many courts have adopted digital recording, and in those situations, traditional court reporters have become digital court reporters. This is not to say it is a push of a button to record a conversation but rather capturing, transcribing, and authenticating proceedings. An issue that can be avoided is that a court reporter might type what he or she thinks was said, but digital recording can pick up every utterance. A digital reporter can articulate when someone is not speaking up, or there are people talking over each other. For reasons like this, depositions can be stressful. People are in a room face to face, and the environment is tense. It is a different process with a different decorum than a courtroom.
SoniClear focuses on providing software to contractors who install the technology into courts. A benefit to this, says Bartholomew, is that courts don’t need an internal expert. A competent IT staff could install it. Enrollment is down for traditional court reporter schools, and the skills required can take several years to learn the stenotype machine, issues, procedures, terms, and accuracy. It is intensive and does not have a high graduation rate.

With digital reporting, people with more of an administrative assistance background could learn to run the software. The real need for expertise comes at transcription time. One trend regarding digital court reporting, he notes, is the pool of potential users is deepening. One organization in Virginia has started a training course for veterans returning to civilian life. The course is multi-week rather than multi-year.
Iam Bennett, marketing director at Louisville, Kentucky-based Justice AV Solutions (JAVS) notes that the looming shortage, for them, is driving the trend to digital recording. “We’ve seen the report by the National Court Reporters Association. We’re trying to boost the reputation and overall usage of digital recording technology in order to aid courtrooms across the United States.” He furthers that digital recording would allow these proceedings to continue as normal and allow the court reporter to transcribe necessary proceedings after the fact. Other benefits include access to justice, transparency of proceedings, and cost savings for taxpayers and parties directly involved in legal cases.
Some advantages JAVS sees in digital recording include the ability for playback, either during the recording or afterwards. Should the issue of, “I didn’t say that…” come up in the courtroom, a judge can immediately pull up the record and play it back. A court reporter may be present in the room and have recorded what they heard, but there is the possibility they heard incorrectly.
There is also the matter that things happen quickly in a courtroom.  People talk over one another. Arguments or outbursts occur, and it’s nearly impossible for a court reporter to capture everything that is happening in those events.  Digital recording allows parties, such as the court reporter, to go back, review the incident as many times as needed in order to capture all of the spoken words.  It will even allow the reporter to isolate certain microphones to better discern what was said.
There is the matter of cost. When a case is appealed, a defendant needs to have access to an official record of the court proceedings related to their trial.  If the trial was lengthy, it can cost several thousand dollars to obtain a copy of a court reporter’s official written transcript.  This transcript may also take weeks or months to produce.  During that time a defendant would likely be incarcerated while waiting to build a case for appeal. This creates a burden on taxpayers, the defendants, their families, and it slows the judicial process as a whole. 
Digital recording offers the ability to export a digital media file, almost instantly, after proceedings have finished for the day. Attorneys and defendants can review the record and, if needed, request a transcript at that point.
There is also the matter of transparency. In today’s digital environment, people demand access.  The media wants to cover court cases, concerned parties want to be able to see what happened in a particular case, and they may not have the means or ability to get to a courthouse. Digital recording gives the courts a media file that they can readily distribute to any interested party. “There is a common misconception that digital recording is stored out on the cloud and is immediately viewable to anyone on the web. This is not the case. Courts are in control of their media files, and they are only released when a judge or other authorized person specifically exports them for such a purpose.”
Continues Bennett, “Let’s face it. Visual media such as poster boards, whiteboards, charts, and other documents all need to be physically stored somewhere after the case is over. With digital recording (and the proper components), courts can scan documents, store video from dash or body cams, save PowerPoint or video presentations, and more. This can all be part of the entire court record, accessible to anyone who needs to review it. This eases the requirements on physical space to store evidence and presentation pieces.”
There are potential challenges to consider. For one, says Bennett, “The process can be a complicated one.  You’ve got courtrooms across the nation that all have different setups, and every system works in a unique way. This was both an advantage and disadvantage of analog AV equipment.  If you needed extra functionality, you would just slap a new component into the system and perform some ‘workaround’ to get everything to work together. Digital technology requires a bit more planning initially, but if done correctly can provide you a scalability of your system that analog could not.” 
What people really want, says Bartholomew, is voice-to-text technology. Often the calls coming in are from people asking about being able to talk, pushing CTRL+P, and having a report print out. That technology, though, is not here yet. Companies like IBM and Amazon are investing billions in such technology as Watson and Alexa, and where it goes remains to be seen. The strides are impressive, though. In this quest, 5.1% is considered a bit of a magic number because that is generally what humans miss in a given conversation. As Bartholomew notes, though, until there is a computer that can recognize every accent, phrase, technological and legal term, tone and metaphor, it will require a human to be involved. The industry may be experiencing a plateau, he adds, and leaps forward may not be enormous until voice-to-transcript evolves.
There is still another consideration regarding the transition to digital recording, says Lederer, and that is the nature of judges and lawyers who tend to like paper and reading. Many people remain uncomfortable without a printed hard copy. “What drives the whole thing is the perceived need for a written transcript.”


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