The use of digital recording instead of court reporters in trials and legal proceedings has been a hot topic in the legal industry. In an effort to cut costs, many courts have employed the use of digital recording. Opponents of digital recording argue that timeliness and accuracy issues with digital recording outweigh the cost advantages. In the judicial system particularly, accuracy and timeliness are paramount. This debate presents a bigger question: Is cutting corners sacrificing the integrity of our legal system?
A few studies and some research has been done around that question and the results are staggering. Defender Sally Avera provided estimates of the impact of digital recording on her office. She found that reviewing digital records for lengthy appeals took more than 38 hours on average while 6.3 hours is the average time it takes to review a written record. In the Jefferson County Public Defender’s Office in Kentucky, staff numbers were increased by 50% to keep up with the workload created by videotape records. Texas courts brought back stenographers when they found that it took 4.5 hours longer on average to review digital records. These examples make the point that while digital recording may look good on paper, time delays could result in less efficiency and higher costs.
The issue of cost savings from switching to digital has not been completely proven either. While California analysts have estimated $113 million in savings for courts, an Iowa study predicts that digital recording could cost $20,000-$25,000 per courtroom. A cost comparison found that digital recording could cost up to $75 per trial more than reporting without including the cost of equipment and maintenance. In a review of court reporting, a client saved $4,166 a month because certified reports were readily available for review. On average, outsourced digital recorders charge about $50/hour while stenographers mean price is $27/hour.
The most important findings were related to the difference in efficacy between the two methods. A court reporter’s transcript with 1,288 pages had an error rate of less than 1% while much shorter digital records had more errors. Ultimately, the error rates were at least 15% for the digital records. In another example from an 8-month trial in New Jersey, 10,000 indiscernible/inaudible sounds caused the federal district court to spend months reviewing the audio recording of the trial. The review found four recording discs that were defective and couldn’t be reviewed.
Most judges hold that court reporters provide value in ways that digital recording cannot. Realtime reporting makes sure that the proceedings are being recorded and any errors can be detected as they happen. Reporters also help moderate proceedings. They can ask speakers to repeat themselves and prevent more than one person from speaking at a time. Attorney-client privilege can be obstructed by digital recording but stenographers can stop typing if they overhear something that should be omitted from the record.
While digital recording may save costs, it would appear that the negative impacts of switching to a completely digital format would outweigh any financial gain. It is important that justice is upheld in our judicial system and digital recording could potentially compromise its integrity.
Learn more about court reporting here.