The Digital Death Knell of Court Reporting

With the age of technology comes new challenges for an old system that has, with some exceptions, of course, proven tried and true. Along the way, many paper-based professions are starting to become digital. This includes attorneys as well as the court system.

With the introduction of online case management programs, it has become increasingly easy to keep digital records of client files. Many firms now keep minimal, if any, client files on paper. Incoming and outgoing mail is scanned, and paper copies are shredded. Correspondence between attorneys is primarily done via e-mail.

The court system too has also been digitalized. Most filing is done electronically, especially in the federal court system.

But now, the digital age is expanding to affect court reporters. This means that instead of a court reporter taking down what is said during a trial or hearing, the court will install microphones and recording equipment to the stands and jury boxes to have the hearings recorded. A transcriber who was not present in the courtroom will then process the recordings after the fact.

In Massachusetts, these systems are already in place for most civil matters in Superior Court, but the Commonwealth is set to spend $5 million to upgrade the entire system, including expanding it to the criminal side. This would include installing the digital reporting system in 455 courtrooms in 100 different courthouses.

But this poses some potential problems. The primary concern is how well the microphones will pick up the voices of the attorneys as they move around the courtroom to examine witnesses. Another concern is that it will be difficult for transcribers to distinguish between two lawyers arguing over each other.

And what about the one caveat that no one has managed to figure out? What if the equipment, and the program, just stops working? By the time it would be noticed, valuable testimony might have already been given. This could potentially compromise someone’s case, an especially troubling fact in a criminal case.

Perhaps the next thing they should do is replace lawyers with machines?