HOWLAND, Ohio (WKBN) — As many courts deal with a court reporter shortage, a few are coming up with new ways — including the use of artificial intelligence — to handle the workload.
“Our courts in our area — we do have court reporters in some of our courts — but you can go to a lot of municipal courts that have no reporters at all, that have a recording system that somebody is supposed to turn on when you walk into a courtroom, and that often doesn’t happen,” said Kimberly Falgiani, a stenographic court reporter who lives in Howland Township.
Falgiani and her colleague, Lisa Migliore Black, are worried about the increased use of what they describe as AI in the courtrooms.
During a Court Technology Conference in Ohio last month, several companies were there offering services to help courts complete their transcripts, including the use of speech-to-text technology and freelance typists who listen to recordings from the courtroom and turn them into transcripts. Representatives of those companies said with their services, there is no need for a court reporter to be present at every proceeding.
A representative of Youngstown Municipal Court was there and said while the situation was not ideal, he was looking for other avenues to deal with a shortage of court reporters who were able to complete the work locally.
Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin spoke to WKBN about these issues. She said they have been using digital recording software, and if anyone needs a transcript, they can get a CD made of the hearing and then get it transcribed.
“So far, it has been successful, but there is nothing like having an individual in the courtroom to take it down live and read things back to you and be a little more efficient, but it is allowable under the rules of operation of the court, so we’re doing the best that we can in the midst of the shortage,” she said.
Judge Baldwin said the court used to use part-time court reporters who would come in during jury trials or special hearings.
“That supply of individuals who do that are just not there anymore,” she said. “So we are not alone as many courts across the state and country are facing this shortage and trying to pivot effectively to make sure we don’t miss any of the valuable information that comes forward in every hearing.”
WKBN spoke with a few local defense attorneys, some who said they didn’t notice a huge issue with the shortage and others who are finding it difficult to get usable transcripts.
Youngstown-area defense attorney Lynn Maro said she has hired a private court reporter to attend hearings with her as she has had issues receiving complete transcripts due to inaudible portions of recorded court proceedings where a court reporter isn’t otherwise present.
“In my opinion, the most critical thing in that courtroom is the court reporter. The only way we make sure the rules are followed and procedures are done the right away is if we have an accurate transcript for the higher court to review,” she said.
Traditionally, court reporters like Falgiani and Migliore Black sit in a courtroom during proceedings and type a verbatim record of the proceedings for later use. They use special equipment and a shorthand program to capture the words quickly as they are spoken. The trial transcripts may be used, for example, for appeals, impeachments and jury arguments, among other uses.
Falgiani has been working as a licensed court reporter in the area for 43 years. Her work includes not only court reporting but also some more nontraditional jobs. She has handled closed captioning for seminars and music concerts, worked to relay information from doctors to those who are deaf, and was even cast as a court stenographer in episodes of the popular TV shows Magnum P.I. and Hawaii Five-O.
Falgiani said she has gone through extensive training, including a study of legal and medical terminology, to become certified as a court reporter. She worries about leaving the work to those who do not have proper training and said there are several shortcomings with the speech-to-text process.
“Artificial intelligence has a tendency to do what they call ‘hallucinate.’ So they can only train on what they’re fed, so if they, somebody’s speaking and they believe the next word should be something, instead of actually putting what is said, they’ll guess at what the word is meant to be,” she said.
In cases where particulars matter, Falgiani said this can change the outcome of future appeals.
She gave the example of a person who is charged with murder and later appeals the conviction. If someone testifies in court about not seeing the defendant at the scene of the crime but mumbles the response, the recording may enter that part of the testimony as inaudible or indiscernible.
“If your case is turning on certain testimony and it’s not there, you have nothing to go on,” she said.
She said because she is in the courtroom, she can ask a person to repeat and is cognisant of any background noise.
Companies like For the Record, which provides speech-to-text software for use in courtrooms, stand by their products, however.
Tony Douglass, CEO of For the Record, said if courtrooms are equipped with high-quality audio, the speech-to-text record is largely accurate.
“The assumption of perfection in a court record, in a transcript, it’s somewhat flawed. Court reporters, court transcribers are all human beings. They can make mistakes from time to time,” he said. “One of the things that we’re providing in this speech-to-text application is the linkage of the text with the audio recording, so even if there are errors in that text, it is very easy to validate the quality of the audio and work out what was actually said.”
The company demonstrated its new “RealTime” AI-based product for WKBN earlier this year, touting its accuracy.
Employees stressed that the company does not offer certified transcripts but rather a tool that can be used to create them. They say their product can be used to make court reporters’ jobs more efficient.
While it’s not in local courtrooms yet, For the Record’s speech-to-text technology is being used at the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, which is also facing a shortage of court reporters.
Matt Benefiel, the trial court administrator, said so far, it’s successful. The key, he said, is making sure the courtroom is equipped with the proper audio equipment.
“We have eight microphones, eight channels, and we can designate those mics, and so we can designate who’s speaking, and that is a huge help. So a court reporter that was covering four now can cover 10, maybe 15, and all they’re doing is making sure the recording is working,” he said.
It’s also used at William and Mary Law School’s McGlothlin Courtroom in Virginia, which is testing a number of new courtroom technologies, including the use of a hologram machine for virtual testimony.
Fredrick Lederer, Chancellor Professor of Law and director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology at the school, said he sees the speech-to-text technology as a way to increase access to accurate, affordable records.
“In some ways, we have all these courts of non-record where we don’t make transcripts because we can’t afford to. Now, we will be able to make a record in every case, which will give us a meaningful appeal for the first time in many different types of cases,” he said.
He acknowledged that technology will change the employment landscape for court reporters, as well as others in the legal field.
Some courtrooms are also moving to the use of companies that use freelance transcriptionists.
Representatives of Rev, one of these companies, spoke with WKBN about its process. The company uses automatic speech recognition tools combined with a transcriptionist chosen from a pool of people who work under a contract with the company to review each transcript.
Aaron O’Hearn, who runs Rev’s legal business line, spoke about what he called the company’s “legal marketplace” of transcriptionists.
“For legal work specifically, we have worked very diligently to bring the highest-performing transcriptionists in the Rev marketplace into a specific legal marketplace. So, we’ve been able to really elevate the quality even more. These are transcriptionists that are only doing legal jobs, and so as a result, the quality of the work that they produce is much higher than what is in the broader freelance marketplace,” he said.
The company can attest to the accuracy of the transcripts but does not certify as the court reporter. Certain circumstances, such as depositions, require these certifications, O’Hearn said.
Fagliani and Migliore Black question the expertise of employees used by these private companies. They showed WKBN a video on social media showing an advertisement for jobs for people who are “broke and lazy.” The woman in the video describes working on transcriptions as a “side hustle” to make extra cash, and she shows how you can run the audio through a speech recognition website to generate these transcriptions without having to do any work.
WKBN reached out to the creator of the video who said that she just promotes the available jobs and their listings and that she doesn’t actually do the work herself.
O’Hearn added that his company has numerous checks and balances to ensure that its freelancers are accurately completing their jobs, as well as measures in place to be HIPAA compliant.
Migliore Black, the co-chair of the National Court Reporter Association’s Strong Committee, also questioned the security risks of sending any video and audio recordings online.
“The added danger is that with a written transcript is there’s no biometric information that’s being shared — your face for facial recognition, your voice for voice identification. Those are the type of things that are being used for personal identification with banking records or security systems, a litany of other software. There’s software that exists that those things can be replicated for free or very cheap, and that’s not part of our written record, but it’s definitely part of the record when it’s being created by a digital reporting system,” she said.
Both Rev and For the Record responded that they have security in place to prevent sensitive information from being shared.
While those in the industry acknowledge that there is a need for more court reporters, the court reporters that WKBN spoke with say the solution is not to turn to artificial intelligence. They say they are not the only industry facing a workplace shortage, and they are urging those who are interested in learning more about a career in court reporting to sign up for the NRCA’s free online courses to learn the basics and determine if the career is right for them.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, despite limited employment growth, about 2,000 openings for court reporters and simultaneous captioners are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force.