When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world, it affected the nation’s judicial system. Courtrooms were closed, proceedings were halted, and the entire judicial system came to a standstill. Besides the lockdown and social distancing measures implemented by the government and health agencies, the judicial system was simultaneously experiencing a shortage of court reporters.
Without reliable court reporters in place, the system ground to a halt during the height of Covid-19. Judges are reliant on the availability of court reporters to set agenda items on their docket. In turn, court reporters are necessary in order to compel a case forward without wasteful delays or continuations. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the agencies that provide court reporters have had to decline business due to staffing concerns. The end result? Court reporters have become more scarce and costly to hire.
While the Covid-19 pandemic served as an accelerant, there was already a problem forming as early as 2019. According to the State Journal Register, more than 5,000 court reporters will reach retirement age in the immediate future. Without newly certified reporters to backfill those positions, the industry may very well face a staffing crisis in the coming years, especially as demand for court reporters continues to grow, upwards of 3% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although remote depositions have improved the capacity of court reporters amidst the pandemic, the same availability might not exist, especially after factoring in travel time and the other realities of in-person depositions.
Remote depositions serve as a powerful solution to the court reporter shortage. Remote depositions allow courts to pull from a much wider range of available staff as they eliminate prohibitive factors such as travel time and the associated cost. Besides transcribing, in-person depositions often involve lengthy commutes, long hours spent preparing drafts, carrying physical exhibits, and waiting in line to transport the exhibits back to the office.
Court Reporting: Then and Now
The field of court reporting has a long and storied history in the United States. Its roots stretch all the way back to the mid-1900s, an era of quill pens that evolved into more complex stenography by the turn of the century. According to the National Association of Court Reporters, it wasn’t until the 1940s that stenography machines began to appear in courtrooms across the country. From there, technology appreciated rapidly, with the advent of PCs for courtroom use beginning in the mid-90s. These PCs were configured with specially engineered programs designed to translate the court reporter’s shorthand into a text-based format.
Time marches onward, as does technology. New methodologies were adopted, including the more widespread use of digital reporting solutions which have now become a mainstay in the courtroom. In the last decade, these methodologies have slowly made their way into depositions and other out-of-court proceedings. In other words, technology, like the remote deposition, helps to alleviate —and eliminate— the court reporter shortage through increased availability.
According to a 2021 article in Lawtechnologytoday.org, digital court reporting is growing at a break-neck pace. We’ve entered an interesting era in court reporting, however, where professional reporters and stenographers have harnessed a mixed methodology. This holistic embrace of technology and best practices promises to propel the industry past its current court reporter shortages.
Leveraging Technology to Address the Court Reporter Shortage
While the legal system has been viewed as traditional when it comes to adopting technology, things are changing.
Digital recording technology has been adopted in courts across the country, including in Alaska, Oregon, Utah, and Vermont, among other states where digital audio recording is used in all jurisdictions of the court sessions.
In keeping up with the trend, AI technology is being sought by legal agencies as a viable solution to the growing court reporter shortage. When incorporated with automated speech recognition, transcription, and digital reporting, AI has the potential to improve speech-to-text engines to the point that they can rapidly and accurately transcribe technical legal procedures and depositions.
Technology cannot fully replace the entire duties of a court reporter. It can, however, ease the burden placed on individual court reporters —and the court reporter shortage at large— through innovations like video conferencing and digital reporting. New technology helps facilitate better allocation of court reporters and their talents by increasing their working footprint. In the next section, we will look at the key methods and best practices that are currently shaping court reporting in the face of a historic labor shortage.
1. Remote Stenographer and Digital Court Reporters
Stenography remains the most common court reporting procedure that prompts stenographers to use a stenotype keyboard or steno machine where the keystrokes are converted into regular English and displayed as text on a screen. Digital court reporters also capture the proceeding, but they use a digital tool to record a verbatim record as opposed to a steno machine.
Historically, regardless of which method was used, it was required that the reporter capturing the transcript be physically present at a deposition. A significant amount of their time is wasted traveling to and from the physical location of the deposition.
Even post-Covid, many court reporting agencies have opted for remote connections on remote deposition platforms, where depositions take place virtually while all parties, including the court reporters or stenographers, attend the proceeding from an office or their home and connect through the online platform.
Now, without travel restrictions, court reporters and stenographers can fit more depositions in a day. Reduced travel time isn’t the only benefit of remote stenography; this method also allows for the creation of a video record to assist with transcription and scoping activities.
2. Digital Reporting with Transcription
Court reporting agencies capture depositions or other legal events by the use of audio and video recording systems, some with distinct audio channels per participant. Because there is an audio recording plus court reporter annotations, there is less chance of human error or a missed word, particularly when people may be talking at the same time.
The job of a digital reporter is to manage oaths, exhibits, and notetaking. Artificial Intelligence adds speed and lowers costs to the formula, enabling court reporters to submit a rough draft of the transcript immediately following the proceeding.
3. Digital Reporters with Speech-to-Text Editor Systems
Digging in a bit deeper into the AI technology, depositions that follow the speech-to-text methodology are usually captured by digital reporters. Transcripts are produced using advanced AI, where agencies and reporters employ speech-to-text software for accurate and effective legal transcription.
The speech-to-text software utilizes both AI and machine learning to create an initial rough draft of the testimony, which is then formatted to verbatim legal standards by a professional human using a collaborative editor system.
Multiple people can work on the same transcript in different locations at the same time to complete the transcript within the shortest time possible. The resulting verbatim transcript is then formatted into the certified transcript copy.
4. Cloud Technology in the Courtroom
The modern courtroom benefits highly from digital transformation, integrating cloud-based technologies to help mitigate the court reporter shortage. When implemented appropriately, cloud technology is the great equalizer. Not only does it help to streamline legal proceedings, but it also boosts operational transparency.
The net result is an increase in overall courtroom efficiency, with expedited dockets and significantly reduced backlogs. In turn, more people have equal access to the legal system and its benefits. In the end, cloud technologies allow attorneys and citizens to engage with the court remotely, greatly reducing the stress of on-site legal proceedings.
At its heart, cloud technology in the courtroom fosters increased opportunities for collaboration. Pulling critical information from all disciplines, from judges to legal counsel, cloud technology helps to mitigate the court reporter shortage by allowing each court participant to operate remotely, across a diverse range of settings.
With in-person and remote proceedings split evenly, modern court reporting systems must accommodate both settings. By offering fit-for-purpose scalability and flexibility, adopting cloud technology will reduce IT costs while giving courts access to innovative workflow and security.
Benefits of Technology in Addressing Court Reporter Shortages
Adopting technology in the judicial system has led to the introduction of audio and video recording devices in courtrooms, both in-person and virtual. Courts experience the advantages of having their audio and video content integrated directly with their official records to gain an e-record of all court proceedings, creating a truly connected courtroom. Other advantages experienced by these technologies include:
- Improved transparency and accountability: E-records can offer comfort to citizens that the proceedings are legitimate and there will be evidence of irregular behavior. Appellate courts can depend on the recordings to review proceedings in lower courts and ensure their procedural integrity.
- Data security: Secure access of the digital files whilst ensuring confidentially, as only those authorized can access that data.
- Increased accuracy: Cloud technology allows parties and litigators to have a digital record of the proceeding, leaving a footprint to maintain accurate records.
- Prevent corruption and procedural abuse: While e-recording cannot stop crime from happening outside of the courtroom, greater monitoring can have a beneficial effect and crackdown on corruption in the legal justice system.
Looking Into the Future of Court Reporting
In the world of civil litigation, deposition, and discovery, it is difficult to replace human court reporters with technology. However, we must address the question of whether AI will help alleviate the court reporter shortage in the future.
One of the most critical advantages is the ability to automate part of the transcription process, which reduces the turnaround time to receive deposition transcripts from weeks to minutes. Furthermore, leveraging technological solutions for certified transcription shortens legal processes and ensures accuracy, saving time, money, and risk.
In addition, technology can help to ensure more reliability in producing accurate certified transcripts. Professional transcribers review and edit system-generated transcripts to ensure the final product is an accurate record of the court proceeding. Adaptive procedures and algorithms ensure that adjustments that are made in the data are fed back to the system to aid in the streamlining of legal technology over time.
While all these benefits are exciting, it is important to note that skilled professionals are indispensable. Just like court reporters transitioned from hand-written transcription to stenotype machines and digital recordings, they now must incorporate modern technology of AI-enabled transcription and voice recognition software.
This advancement is driving the transition from traditional court reporters to modern court reporters who are akin to court technologists. Modern court technologists are tech-savvy and can utilize the human cue alongside technology to improve the legal justice system.
Human judgment is hard to replicate, and skilled individuals can manage a wide array of court technologies and ensure that they function efficiently. Adoption of these technologies disapproves of the ideology that courts are conservative in tech. Nevertheless, human court reporters will remain an integral part of the process by teaming up with tech experts to offer a long-term to the judicial system. Technology is changing the legal profession, and many people are finding opportunities in these innovations. Court reporting agencies that leverage these new tools to serve the industry will emerge with a competitive advantage in the post-COVID years.
At Remote Legal, we offer a remote legal proceeding platform and a court reporter. We provide the certified transcript that addresses the challenges of the current court reporter shortage. For detailed information on how our tools can help in your depositions, schedule your demo.
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