Stenographer shortage hits chief justice's courtroom
Chief Justice Bryan Sykes

THE absence of court reporters from none other than the chief justice's courtroom at the Supreme Court in downtown Kingston on Wednesday resulted in a sentencing exercise for a man who pleaded guilty to murder being put on ice.

Court reporter/steno writers document verbatim everything which is said during circuit court hearings islandwide and in civil cases producing a transcript which is essentially the official record of everything that takes place during a court proceeding. A professional court reporter/steno writer in Jamaica is expected to write at a speed of 225 words per minute (wpm), with a 97 per cent level of accuracy. In addition, they prepare the notes for judges on a daily basis and prepare transcripts of cases that are being appealed. The dwindling of the number of court reporters has dogged the system over the years and has worsened the Jamaica Observer understands, with no reporters being trained over the past few years while several have left the system. The situation has been aggravated by low salaries and less than adequate work conditions with numerous complaints being made by court reporters that reportedly have a strained working relationship with the court's leadership.

When the matter was called up on Wednesday morning before Supreme Court Judge Justice Leighton Pusey in Courtroom Number One (the Chief Justice's Courtroom), Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn, King's Counsel, who is leading the evidence in the matter queried whether the absence of the reporters was due to illness or some other issue.

Justice Pusey, in responding said, "There is no indication that the absence of the court reporters is anything but inadvertent." Asked whether the situation had affected other courts or was just confined to the Supreme Court, Justice Pusey said, "For this court, the difficulty that we have had is that we lost some court reporters and some of them were very, very senior and some we have trained have left for other opportunities, so therefore when one person is unable to come or illnesses or other circumstances, then we are short."

He said as part of efforts to resolve the issue, the court's administration was pulling court reporters from case management courts, replacing their services with audio recorders in those hearings.

"In order to manage the situation, it is being contemplated to allow for some court hearings to proceed with audio recordings with a transcription service. The rules committee is looking at that… we are not going to get rid of court reporters, but we are going to expand the system," Justice Pusey said.

The DPP, in responding, noted that the shortage of court reporters to produce transcripts have continued to affect proceedings in the appeal court, with one prominent matter currently before that court also being put on hold since week.

"I don't think all is well, and I get the impression from the Court of Appeal that they have been having issues in respect of the production of transcripts. I am hoping that certain things can be ironed out so that the administration of justice can continue," the DPP said.

On Wednesday, Justice Pusey said a proposal document, which is the result of deliberations by the Rules Committee, is part of the effort to find "a way forward".

"The short of it is that the court is very much aware of the shortage, it's not a secret that we have not had any new court reporters added to the complement for quite some time in terms of the training. Worldwide, the need for persons who do that is very great, even in the United States, by next July they will need 11,000 posts and the pass rate is between five and 10 per cent," the senior judge noted.

"In other words, out of every 100 persons who start the programme, good listening skills and language skills; it's not just Jamaica, it is worldwide. What it means is that they will need to train 100,000 people to get the 11,000 they need. There is a desire for us to have a system whereby we can have [transcriptions done] so we don't have instances like this. There is a vision. So we are not sitting down on our hands and saying we can't do anything about it," Justice Pusey said.

On Wednesday, other matters scheduled to be heard by Justice Pusey were stood down, due to not just the absence of the reporters but for other reasons.

The Justice Training Institute (JTI) operates as the training arm of the Ministry of Justice and is the only institute locally that offers training in court reporting and steno writing.

Most court reporters work with the Supreme Court, the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, the Office of the Services Commission, the Houses of Parliament, and the Jamaica Defence Force. The JTI in 2020 admitted that there is a shortage of court reporters locally.

Alicia Dunkley-Willis

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