A quick check of the online news and you will find several current stories about the court reporter shortage in just about every state. This is a big deal. Court reporters have been a staple of courtroom proceedings for decades, and their service to the industry has been invaluable. They provide the official record of proceedings – every word that was said, painstakingly keyed into their devices, and later converted to a document that can be purchased by attorneys and litigants for review, appeals and more.
In most of these states, if a court reporter is not available for a hearing or trial, then the judicial process grinds to a halt. Judges, jury, attorneys, plaintiff, and defendant can all be in attendance, but without a court reporter, nothing can happen. So, it seems only natural that this is a hot topic from both the public and human-interest angles.
So, what are Court Administrators to do? Court reporters claim that training more court reporters is the only fix. They claim that proposed solutions like digital court AV and recording can’t handle the demands of the role, that solutions can’t possibly ignore sharp loud noises (like slamming doors) that can obscure what someone is saying, that digital recorders can’t stop proceedings to clarify a statement from a witness, and that audio recording quality cannot match the accuracy of a well-trained ear and a stenotype machine.
Well, there are a few things that your court reporters may not be telling you…
Digital court AV CAN do the job.
What you need to understand is that when most court reporters, lawyers or judges talk about “digital recording not being able to do the job” they are referring to a single piece of equipment with one, or a very small array of microphones placed somewhere in a courtroom. These small handheld digital recorders are great for small rooms, or more intimate settings where informal interviews or evaluations are taking place. These machines were never designed, or intended for, the demands of a courtroom.
Today’s premier digital recording solutions employ multiple microphones—placed in several strategic locations around a given room, and programmed in such a way that they can catch every utterance. These microphones are connected to AV processors that act as a central control for the entire system – raising and lowering microphone gain to automatically track the voice of someone walking around a courtroom. These processors can be integrated into courtroom PA systems as well to boost the sound in the room, or to muffle things like bench conferences by playing white noise. In both cases, recording can be controlled by the judge, to preserve or omit part these conversations from the record.
In some scenarios, cameras can be activated to capture video of the person speaking. These same AV processors can automatically change camera views to microphone zones as someone in the room begin to talk, or to track a speaker as they walk from one microphone zone to another.
Courtrooms are lively places where people are coming and going all day. Sudden noises like doors closing, people coughing, and more happen on a regular basis. Proper digital recording systems overcome these issues with multi-channel audio recording. Basically, each microphone is recorded on its own audio channel. When a loud noise occurs in the room, the active audio channel for whoever is speaking can be quickly isolated by lowering the gain of the other microphones in the room, especially the ones closest to the source of the offending noise. This ensures that the clearest, most accurate audio is captured through the microphone closest to the person who is speaking.
The advantages of multi-channel audio recording extend far past just loud noise filtering, though. Let’s step up the stakes for a moment and think about a scenario when multiple people are attempting to speak at the same time, someone becomes unruly, or an argument ensues in a courtroom. Multi-channel recording allows not only for full review of a possibly intense situation, but also allows for isolated review of each individual channel of audio upon playback. This enables judges, attorneys, and other concerned individuals the ability to review the exact chain of events. Court reporters must rely on their perception of the events that occur during these times and create a transcript upon their recollection of what was said during these emotional and potentially dangerous moments.
How can they manage to accurately recall these events and transcribe them at a later time, you might ask? In most cases, with the help of the very device that they claim can’t do the job— by reviewing, and transcribing from a recording on their personal handheld recorder.
At this point, you might be thinking that the argument is, “Who can do the job better?” This is not at all the case. What we are dealing with is a shortage of people that can do the job. More court reporters are retiring this year than are expected to graduate, fewer schools are available for court reporter training, and lack of interest for court reporter training are plaguing agencies nationwide. We need a viable solution to fill the gap, and digital recording can be that solution.
Digital court AV &recording is already a proven courtroom solution.
In a recent white paper, written by Judge William L. Knopf (Ret.), it states that since 1985, courts in the state of Kentucky, have been using digital court AV recording as the official record of court proceedings.
In 1985, the year that the original Nintendo Entertainment System debuted, audio/video recording technology was advanced enough not only for use in the courtroom, but clear and dependable enough for use as the official court record. Judge Knopf writes about his personal experiences with the system, how it positively impacted the judicial process, and what a great success the program was, and still is today.
Kentucky’s progressive approach to the courtroom record also ensured that no court reporters lost their jobs as a result of the new technology. A program was implemented to allow current staff to retire or move on before full adoption of the digital record as the official record, thus solving the states court reporter shortage.
Various other states have followed Kentucky’s lead in the use of audio video technology in courtrooms. Some states use it to supplement court reporters in their transcription duties, while others have AV systems that record courtroom events in the absence of a court reporter to store the files digitally until a transcription is needed, or a court reporter is available to transcribe from the recording.
Digital AV solutions can produce huge budget and taxpayer savings.
Judge Knopf, estimates in his whitepaper that Kentucky has seen a savings of over $27 Million annually through the use of AV technology. This savings was realized through recovering retired court reporter salaries and benefits for Kentucky’s 120 counties. What his calculations don’t take into account in this white paper, is the immeasurable savings and increased access to justice for litigants. Not only are concerned parties able to get a clear, verbatim court record within minutes of a proceeding ending for the day, but they realize a huge savings on the cost of that court record. Transcripts can cost anywhere from a couple of cents to a couple of dollars per page, and when you think about a case that could span several days, weeks or even months, the cost of a written transcript can be quite expensive. These transcripts are required for an appeal, and if a defendant can’t afford them, then their access to justice has severely been diminished. Creating and providing a clear digital record makes the court record accessible and affordable for all parties involved in a case. This immediate access to a court record can lessen jail times, reduce the wait associated with appeals processes, and help eliminate judicial backlog.
Things to know about digital AV in your courtroom:
System design is everything
Who you work with to design your system can mean the difference between a highly-functional, efficient solution and something that court reporters like to point to as examples of how technology can’t match their skill.
Yes, you can go online and purchase a digital recording system right now that has multiple microphones, but do you have the technical capabilities and experience to create a viable solution that will capture the spoken word in your courtroom? Will you be able to place and program the microphones to be able to get full audio coverage of your space? Will the quality of the hardware you purchase be up to the standard of your needs and challenges?
Working with an integration partner is your best option for creating a customized solution that can do the job and handle the demands of a working courtroom.
You get what you pay for
When you are evaluating AV integration partners, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples when it comes to the quote that you get. Many integrators are happy to quote you for the price of a system, and then upcharge you after they have a signed contract for things like installation hours and materials, warranties, travel and support, etc. Make sure you ask a lot of questions about your quote to ensure that you are not only getting the best deal possible, but that there aren’t a ton of hidden charges after you sign on the dotted line. Also, remember that your situation is unique. Even though you have a courtroom, it’s not like any other courtroom in the country. So, when someone is trying to sell you on a pre-configured package, remember, that packaged was designed on a “generic idea” of a courtroom, and that’s how that integrator sees you. Be sure to work with a partner that has dedicated design technicians, and that takes the time to understand your unique challenges before putting a solution in your hands to decide on. You may pay a little more for it, but your results will more than make up for the added costs.
Work with a company that not only installs, but services and guarantees their own hardware/software
A lot of integrators will tell you that it’s advantageous for them to be able to shop around to get you the best deal on hardware or software for your courtroom. But when it comes to maintaining, servicing, and more importantly guaranteeing their products and workmanship, they will leave you hanging. Be sure to work with a company that has a proven track record of supporting their solutions and customers. Be sure to ask if your integrator has a dedicated, in-house technical support team, or if they have in-house technicians to install and service their equipment. Contractor networks won’t cut it when your courtroom record is on the line. Go with someone with a history of courtroom success, and support.