Can Court Reporters Really be Replaced by Digital Voice Recognition?

by contactus on May 9, 2013

We’ve seen computers replace humans in a variety of professions over the years. Just think about how often you are greeted on the phone by a computer recording, make a transaction at an ATM machine, or get directions from your car. Electronics have invaded every corner of the workforce, so it should come as little surprise that the court recording system is jumping on the bandwagon. There are pros and cons of the digital age, and voice recording devices are not exempt. Let’s check out the research and see how they have performed in place of the court’s scribe in select courts around the country.

First we should give a brief description of what a digital recorder is actually capable of doing. They can record the proceedings with exceptional clarity, slow down voices that are talking too quickly, and kick out background noise to make the spoken words less muffled. That appears to be the extent of their edge over the highly skilled trained and certified professionals that have been recording in the court system since the beginning of the judicial system.

The argument for making the switch to digital recording systems is to save money in the courts. No big surprise there. What is surprising is the rapid willingness to compromise everything that a human stenographer offers to the judge and attorneys by well, being human. A study was done in California on the widespread use of digital recorders in everything from complex commercial litigation matters to patent proceedings, with a side by side comparison summary on the benefits of having the old-fashioned human sitting in the courtroom at the judge’s side. Let’s explore their findings and you can decide if the savings are actually as good as the state and federal courts had hoped.


The judge depends on the court stenographer to give verbatim feedback at a moment’s notice. This is especially necessary in a complex case. With digital recorders the process of retrieval is not quick and efficient as it is from the stenographer. Digital recorders are not able to do a text or name search of testimony quickly, causing a substantial delay and interruption in the daily proceedings.

Transcript Fees

A stenographer usually has a privately funded program to turn the shorthand recordings into transcripts limiting the costs the courts pay for the service. Replacement by digital recorders would place that added fee onto the court system.

Maintenance Concerns

You might think that all those weekly wages going by the wayside would soon cover the initial investment of all that digital equipment. Well, it doesn’t seem to add up that way. Currently, all the stenographers maintain their own equipment, making sure all the latest software updates are purchased and used to the court’s benefit. Buying, maintaining, updating, and repairing the equipment would fall solely on the courts.

Certified Should Mean Certified

Right now, when a stenographer turns over the court transcript it is a certified, verbatim copy of the court’s proceedings. The digital recorder will pick up inaudible utterances, confidential sidebars, and background “static” noise along with the questioning and testimony of the trail. Who will check the recording and certify that the transcript is accurate if it is done with a digital device? A person is still needed to wade through the recording to account for those discrepancies.

So the facts are in; the findings are reported; and the case has been made. They have had different names throughout history (scribe, stenographer, court reporter), but one thing they have in common is their professional status as the humans in charge of the written word of the court.

About the Author

Lance Brusilow is a court reporter in Philadelphia and the owner of Brusilow + Associates, a litigation support agency.

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