What Is Court Reporting?
Last week the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) led the 2016 National Court Reporting & Captioning Week from February 14th-20th. This was the fourth time the NCRA spearheaded the event, and according to NCRA officials it was also the most celebrated year to date, with seventeen states hosting awareness activities across the country. One of the many talking points of the week addressed the growing demand for court reporters. NCRA President Steve Zinone in particular publicized the abundant job opportunities available for captioners, freelance reporters, and CART providers.
In fact, an estimated 5, 000 court reporters are projected to enter retirement in the next five years. Meanwhile the younger generation is expressing little interest in pursuing careers as court reporters, in part because technological advancements in transcription has suggested court reporting is quickly becoming an antiquated practice. Even though some courtrooms are switching to digital recordings, studies conducted by the NCRA in 2013 indicate that the demand will continue to exceed the supply of court reporters across the country.
Veteran court reporter, Chrisitine Phipps, recently echoed NCRA’s prediction to CBS station WPEC by stating, “If you look back at our industry five years ago, you did not see captioning of all proceedings. Now not only do we have jobs available in court systems and depositions and hearings and things going on all across the country, we have meetings like with Microsoft and close captioning opportunities.” Court reporters, it seems, may no longer be confined to courtroom settings.
During the last week’s National Court Reporting & Captioning event speakers attempted to attract more students to the profession by reminding them that court reporters could achieve an almost six-figure salary without the hassle of a four-year degree. In 2014, the United States Department of Labor found that court reporters in the top ten earning percentile were given an average annual salary of $94, 140.
In the digital age, many worry that mechanized systems, machines or even software will replace their jobs, and some court reporters in Massachusetts feel the same way. In a $5 million dollar project, supreme courts across the state have begun installing digital recording systems that would remove the need for a court reporter entirely. The reasoning for the project is that it would streamline the judicial process, and helps balance shrinking court budgets.
This is a trend that is happening nationwide as well, underfunded court systems are opting to use digital software to keep costs down, but that too comes at a price. In criminal cases, court reports must be without error, since they form the basis for most appeals. A mix of judges, lawyers and other legal professionals are objecting to the Massachusetts project, claiming that the digital records will be inaccurate, which could cause convicted persons to go free on a technicality.
Superior Court Magistrate Gary Wilson thinks the decision to cut funding for court reporters by using digital means is a poor decision. In an interview with the Boston Globe, he expressed his concerns: “This is an attempt to do this [balance the overextended court budget] on the cheap, and it’s not where I would want to be saving money. I think it’s penny-wise and pound foolish to fool around with the record on a very, very serious case.”
The difficulty with a digital system lies in the unpredictability of how it will handle real world situations. Defendants or witnesses who speak softly, have a harsh accent or do not space their words adequately could severely compromise the record. The more dangerous problem is that a mistake in the record like this could go unnoticed until it was much too late to stop the record, and that is the kind of error a conviction can be overturned with.
Wilson hopes that continued discussion will help administration see just how important these reporters are to the judicial process, and allow them to continue being a vital part of the courts in Massachusetts.