Historically, American courts create a record of most court hearings to facilitate public and appellate review of proceedings. Until recently, trial proceedings were recorded by litigation services or a court reporter who transcribed verbatim testimony, arguments, and rulings spoken by trial participants. But technological advances in recording systems have encouraged some American courts to install electronic systems that record sound and video to create a record of proceedings. These systems produce CD recordings automatically, without involvement from court reporters.
Before conducting a trial with an automatic recording system, litigants should become familiar with the system’s strengths and weaknesses.
STRENGTHS OF AUTOMATIC RECORDING SYSTEMS
The chief strength of these systems is obvious: they are relatively inexpensive to operate. Automatic electronic recording systems eliminate the need for court reporters who command compensation commensurate with their high level of skill. And production of a CD is quicker and less expensive than preparing a written transcript of proceedings.
The systems have other advantages, too. They are ready virtually any time. And systems that produce a CD capture more communication from the courtroom, including speakers’ voice inflection, body movements, and other behavior.
WEAKNESSES OF AUTOMATIC RECORDING SYSTEMS
These systems also suffer significant weaknesses as a means of keeping a record. Among other things, they require significant capital expense, with higher installation costs for older courthouses not built to accommodate technical equipment.
In addition, recording systems aren’t yet efficient at recording all courtroom events. Most are voice-activated, focusing attention on the most recent speaker. Words and actions of other speakers can be left unrecorded at critical moments, eliminating important testimony from the record. Because systems don’t effectively monitor themselves, omissions from the record usually aren’t discovered in time to correct the record.
A CD record can often be difficult to understand for many reasons, including interference, redirection of recording priority, or acoustics. In a courtroom staffed by court reporters, court reporters can advise that testimony can’t be understood and ask that it be repeated, but automatic technology is less capable of admitting these troubles.
Attorneys should also be aware that automatic recording systems are nondiscriminatory, recording sounds of all kinds. Counsel prone to whisper derogatory remarks or make other stray noises may anticipate that those sounds will become part of the record.
For these and other reasons, CDs produced by an automatic recording system aren’t favored as a trial record. Even when CD recordings are available, many litigants pay court reporters to produce a written transcript. A litigation service firm can offer these in any format.
We can envision a time when technological advances permit contemporaneous automatic recordings that clearly record all courtroom communication in a useable format. But for now, litigants are well served by the active presence of skilled court reporters who use human discretion to assemble an accurate and inclusive record.