Lessons From Videotaped Courts

Utah courts are using video to produce trial records in cases with low probability of appeal.

by / March 31, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Court reporters are expensive and often produce trial
transcripts that are never needed again.
SOLUTION: Videotaping some types of trials produces an immediate, inexpensive record of a trial.
JURISDICTION: Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah.
CONTACT: Eric Leeson 801/578-3831
As astonishing as this may sound, the cost of litigation is dropping in Utah. We have achieved significant savings by systematically and sensibly applying technology to the judicial delivery systems in our state. Most notable is our installation of systems over the past five years to videotape legal proceedings in our courtrooms.

By 1998, virtually all trials in Utah, except those involving capital and first-degree felony charges (armed robbery, attempted murder, etc.) and discretionary civil litigation, will be recorded by videotape without benefit of a human court stenographer transcribing the record manually. Currently, 21 courtrooms in Utah are wired for trial video, and an additional 33 will be online by 1998 -- 25 in our new, state-of-the-art judicial complex in Salt Lake City and nine in the new courthouse in Ogden.

We estimate that we will save about $166,300 per courtroom over five years by using video, even after paying the estimated $45,000 per-courtroom cost of installing each video trial system. That works out to $7.5 million in savings in the first five years.

To understand how we came to use video trial in Utah, it is instructive to look at Utah's history of recording legal proceedings. Prior to the mid-1980s, Utah -- like other states -- used only human court reporters to record legal proceedings. These talented individuals have long been admired for their speed and accuracy. But at $48,000-plus a year in salaried benefits and charges of up to $2.50 per page for transcripts, reporters are expensive.

Moreover, because only 7 percent of all trial verdicts are appealed and need transcripts, written records are unnecessary in the vast majority of cases tried here.

In the late 1980s, Utah began experimenting with audio recording of trials. These early efforts proved problematic because the recordings were often unintelligible; in some instances, trials were recorded on single track systems which produced indecipherable records. When a written record was required, human court reporters complained bitterly that they couldn't hear what had been said.

But the difficulty with the audio experiments did not dissuade Utah from seeking an alternative to total reliance on court reporters. In 1990, we convened the "Commission on Justice in the 21st Century" to determine the best uses of technology in the courts, and one of the issues it addressed was electronic recording of proceedings.

In our view, the problem with court reporters was more than economic. Court reporters in Utah at that time were quasi-judicial employees who worked specifically for one judge. This unique status meant that they were governed by the judges rather than state employment rules. Thus, if a judge took an afternoon off, the court reporter was not held accountable for his/her time -- while other state employees worked full days. As you can imagine, this caused considerable morale problems.

It was in this climate that we first decided to try trial video systems. In 1991, we obtained seed money for two pilot video projects, and money for two more the following year.

From the outset, we knew selecting a vendor for these projects would be critical because the systems had to work well and consistently. Our judiciary was wary of the project, and the court reporters were concerned. Any serious mistakes, breakdowns or failures in service could be extremely costly in terms of support.

Through the pilot program, we were immediately struck by two important realizations: (1) video trial systems saved considerable amounts of money, and (2) video trial systems did not eliminate the need for court reporters in all cases.

Indeed, we soon discovered that it made no sense to videotape most capital and first-degree felony cases because the vast majority of these cases are appealed. To videotape them would be ludicrous because a written record would eventually be needed.

Thus, we created what we call the "Coordinated Approach to Court Reporting." We use court reporters to record high-profile cases such as capital and first-degree felonies, and we use trial video for most civil cases and less severe criminal cases -- unless the judge determines that a human reporter is needed.

We also reconfigured the role of court reporters in our system. First, we decided we would not lay off court reporters and would instead let their numbers decline by attrition. Then, we discontinued their unique relationships with judges and placed them in a statewide pool from which they could be used as needed.

We also developed computer- integrated courts to enable the most proficient reporters to use their talents to create instantaneous records through computer-aided transcription. In the capital and first-degree felony cases in which they are used, these reporters produce records that are instantaneously sent to computers at the judge's bench, on the attorney's tables, and other strategic courtroom locations.

The system we created in Utah works quite well. In my view, it's a blueprint for other states seeking to use technology to make their courtrooms work more efficiently and cost effectively. This blueprint contains the following two important lessons:

1. Create a system that uses technology and court reporters appropriately. There is an important role for court reporters in the courtrooms of the future. Treat them as part of the solution, rather than the problem.

2. Use a vendor whose level of expertise and service will make the video recording system totally reliable. Anything less can jeopardize efforts to expand use of technology.

Because the savings are so substantial, the use of video technology will no doubt grow rapidly in the near future. For states moving in that direction, I recommend following the guidelines we developed in Utah. Doing so will make the transition to video trials simpler and more effective than you anticipate.