By Brian Kabateck
As of November 14th, the Los Angeles Superior Court no longer provides an official court reporter free of charge in many types of civil cases.
A severe shortage of court reporters has forced the shift of reporters from civil cases including family law, probate, evictions, and more—where they are not mandated—to criminal trials, where the presence of a court reporter is a statutory obligation.
In many cases, unless the litigants pay to hire a private court reporter to capture and preserve a written record, there will now be no official, verbatim transcript of their proceedings. Private court reporters, paid by pages of transcript, not by the hour, can run as high as $800-$ 2000 per day.
This expense creates obvious difficulties and may disproportionately impact lower-income parties. Some advocates warn that this pay-for-service model creates a “two-tiered justice system.”
As Assemblymember Miguel Santiago told ABC7 News earlier this month, “To take one tool away from families, from communities that is critical to the court process means that they’re going to have to pay for it, but also means that full justice won’t be served.”
However, there is a silver lining to the court reporter shortage. This issue highlights areas in which the court system is critically out of date, and we should seize this moment to advance modernization efforts for everyone’s benefit.
To understand how we got here—and how we can convert this crisis to opportunity—it’s essential to look at the reporter shorter in a larger context. Numerous factors have converged to produce the current predicament.
Despite the high price of hiring a private reporter, it’s not budgetary restrictions on the part of the court causing the shortage but rather the unavailability of qualified court reporters to hire.
Over the last three decades, the U.S. has seen a steady decline in the number of individuals pursuing the education necessary to become a court reporter and a decrease in academic programs that train and certify people for this high-skill position. At the same time, many seasoned court reporters are retiring or aging out of a role that, historically, has been stressful, emotionally draining, time-consuming, and exclusively on-site. Far more individuals are leaving the field than entering it—according to a recent “Ducker Report,” it’s about 6 to 1.
Further, the reporter shortage is only one facet of a very tough few years for the courts in Los Angeles, the State of California, and around the country. In 2020, the whole system ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the problem was brewing long before and set the stage for the current crisis.
The court system has yet to keep pace with how we work today, which has dramatically and permanently transformed over the last few years. The pandemic both underscored and raised the stakes on this critical issue. First, it made up-to-date technology—digital transformation, modernization, cloud-based computing, and so forth—absolutely crucial for the functioning of any organization or industry. Equally important, it not only changed the logistics and culture of work itself, it significantly impacted the factors that attract talent to a given job.
The court reporter shortage, though challenging in the short term, is an opening for the court system to meet the moment.
First, the courts should aggressively pursue new technologies and innovative solutions. 21st-century alternatives such as electronic recording and live-stream platforms can facilitate easier court reporting. Artificial Intelligence can automate and streamline time-consuming, repetitive processes, increasing efficiency and freeing legal professionals to focus on more meaningful tasks.
Second, in today’s “gig economy,” it is necessary and advantageous for organizations to leverage temporary, contract, and freelance workers to supplement full-time hires. Diversifying the labor force allows organizations to scale as needed. It also attracts skilled workers that increasingly value flexibility, engaging work, and opportunities to gain new professional skills over stability and permanence.
Today most court reporters can make better money working for private companies or freelancing. If they’re tech-savvy, they provide the same services remotely, saving time and money on travel.
Ideally, this crisis will usher in a new era by modernizing the system and increasing the appeal of the court reporter job for today’s professionals.