22

It is in the news that it is very expensive for victims to access transcriptions of court proceedings of which they were present. For example one rape survivor said she was quoted £7,500 for the transcript of her trial. An attempted murder victim was quoted almost £300 to provide a transcript of just the judge's sentencing remarks because she had struggled to take in what had been said in the court hearing.

To provide a transcript of a court recording currently a human must be involved, and this is quoted as costing 80p per 72 words. An obvious solution would be to just provide the victim with the recording. They could then get the information they require by listening to it, using an open source speech recognition tool, or a combination of the two depending on their requirements.

Why is this option not provided to victims?

2
  • How is this about Politics rather than administration, logistics and procedure? Do you suggest for instance Green or Left- or Right-wing governments should have different views here? Oct 26, 2023 at 19:41
  • For the law, accuracy in what was said in the court matters. Especially if you are going to appeal your case in the higher courts. It's not just the transcriptions that are important, but the fact that it has been certified by the court to be authentic. A recording made by the general public can be manipulated.
    – sfxedit
    Oct 30, 2023 at 5:11

4 Answers 4

24

The reason given by the government for not providing victims, or indeed the public at large, with audio/visual recordings of court proceedings, is that the knowledge that their actions in court will be recorded/televised, and be available for public access might affect the conduct of the parties in court. Weighing this up against the fact that transcripts may be ordered at public expense if deemed appropriate, it is not currently seen to be sufficiently necessary to promote access to justice. This was mentioned by the then Minister of State for Justice, Lord Faulks, in 2016 (Hansard):

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
My Lords, any member of the public can walk into court to hear proceedings being conducted. That is at the heart of open justice. I have long believed that allowing proceedings to be televised is the natural extension of that principle—subject of course to safeguards, in particular for witnesses. Does the Minister agree that the limited televising of proceedings to date has been a success and should be further extended?

Lord Faulks
There has been some televising of proceedings. The Supreme Court, for example, even has its own website. I do not think it is doing very well in the ratings war, but it provides accessible opportunities to see what goes on the courts. The Court of Appeal Criminal Division is also now available to the public, and a pilot is proceeding on the Crown Court and sentencing remarks. While of course the Government are very much in favour of open justice, we have to proceed carefully in this area, perhaps because of the risk of people being diverted in the way they perform in court, whether they be witnesses or even—dare I say?—lawyers thinking about how they will be perceived.

The whole debate is worth reading (or watching!), as it's not very long and discusses a lot of the points in your question. Notably, the Minister makes the point that a court transcript must be an exactly accurate record of the proceedings in court, and that this accuracy requires expertise and expense. He goes on to point out that judges, if they deem it appropriate (the government application page suggests a good reason being "you need the transcript urgently but cannot afford to pay"), can order the creation of a transcript at public expense, and that legal aid can also cover these costs in certain circumstances.


As Matthew points out in a comment, victims of most sexual offences are entitled to lifelong anonymity (Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992). Witnesses may also be granted anonymity (Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008). Court recordings would have to be reviewed to ensure that this anonymity could not be breached by their release.

1
  • 4
    Providing court audio recordings to the parties is not the same as publishing them. Conditions could well be attached e.g. if you leak this recording, you'll face consequences. I therefore don't buy this answer.
    – Greendrake
    Oct 25, 2023 at 22:35
17

Because courtrooms are not theatres or sound-stages.

Sound recordings are a partial mechanisation of the stenographer/court reporter, where a person who is present in the milieu of the court takes down abridged written notes of the proceedings, and if required regurgitates the events from a combination of both the notes and their own recollection of the events.

In an orderly court, the stenographer will also focus on the voice of a particular person who is the centre of the court's attention, and may ask for things to be repeated, or remind the court to declare in speech certain non-verbal things that ought to be in the record (e.g. "let the record show the witness held up two fingers").

Sound recordings have neither the filter nor the additional sense of a stenographer, and yet generally are presented as more accurate or objective, without that necessarily being true.

Therefore, courts still require sound recordings to pass through the human medium of an authorised transcriber, and the court may review the draft transcription, and "correct" it.

If raw sound recording were released, then in general the public may hear things they aren't entitled to hear (such as private deliberations picked up on microphone), or they may hear things which when shorn of the court context are misrepresentative, or they may hear a chaotic mix of voices without clarity as to who is saying what, or they may hear that which the judge has stricken from the record.

Very few people have experience of listening critically to an incidental sound recording of either themselves or other strangers speaking off the cuff in an everyday situation.

Their experience of listening to sound recordings is usually of media productions by experienced television or radio professionals, working in studios where the environment is set up primarily for the needs of the recorded production, and everything on the recording is usually very clear and/or choreographed.

For that reason, their experience and intuition of how often people mis-speak, or how much the interpretation is influenced by the general mood, by facial expression, by things that may have occured off the recording but which the participants know, by the reaction and prompting of people present (such as might indicate whether they are following the speaker or misunderstanding), is not very keen at all.

7
  • 3
    This answer explains well why sound recordings are no substitution for transcripts, but it doesn't answer the question why they can't be released. For someone who was it the courtroom, the recording would be very much sufficient to fill any gaps in their comprehension.
    – Greendrake
    Oct 25, 2023 at 23:03
  • 1
    @Greendrake, so the part about catching private deliberations or events stricken from the record, and the contrast with how a human stenographer works, doesn't in your view explain by implication why the raw recording isn't released to the public?
    – Steve
    Oct 26, 2023 at 7:15
  • 3
    The question has nothing to do with releasing in public: only to those individuals who has interest in the case. The court could impose conditions to motivate them to keep the recording off the public e.g. contempt of court penalty if it leaks.
    – Greendrake
    Oct 26, 2023 at 7:34
  • 1
    @Greendrake, indeed but why does any of my argument apply less if we are considering only the parties to the case, as distinct from the public? The parties don't have to attend court, and even if they do, they don't have to be involved in the way a note-taker must. The courts do not equate the role and product of a tape recorder with the role and evidence of a person participating in the proceedings, that's a fundamental point in my answer. The judiciary have good reason to reject tech fetishism - look at the Post Office/Horizon scandal for the latest example. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Oct 26, 2023 at 8:04
  • The judiciary are highly conservative anyway, because many of them are very old, and have even less experience of the latest technology than average. They certainly don't have a lifetime of accumulated experience necessary to understand all the details and failure modes, but they do often have enough experience to be sceptical and cautious of things that don't work in straightforward, human-mediated ways. Even paper records were and are treated with some suspicion, when there isn't a person to back up what the records say. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Oct 26, 2023 at 8:06
6

In the UK it is a contempt of court to

publish a recording of legal proceedings made by means of any such instrument, or any recording derived directly or indirectly from it, by playing it in the hearing of the public or any section of the public, or to dispose of it or any recording so derived, with a view to such publication. (Contempt of Court 1981 S.9)

The victim is, in this analysis, a member of the public and this law would therefore make it a contempt if the recording were directly given to the victim.

The purpose of the law seems to be to ensure that trials don't become a place for grandstanding, or appealing to the "court of public opinion"

Speech recognition isn't used, probably so there is "someone to blame". If the transcription is done by a human, and it is done wrong, you can sue the human (or the company). But if a speech recognition transcription is done, then there is nobody to claim damages from if it is done wrong. Also, the law in such matters will tend to run behind the technology. The rules will have been written assuming the text-to-speech technology of 2003, not 2023.

And so there is an oligopoly of highly skilled transcribers - all of whom must have some legal training, and so can charge seeming extortionate amounts. While the oligopoly is protected by legal privilege there cannot be start-ups that provide competition to drive prices down, with or without computer assistance.

1
  • A victim is of course a member of the public (provided that the prosecution is not private), but the same rules apply to parties to the case: they can't get the sound recording either.
    – Greendrake
    Oct 25, 2023 at 23:06
-2

The actual Question 'Why do you need to get court records transcribed to find out what was said?' makes no sense to me. How could it be otherwise?

In theory this is total nonsense. It negates the very idea that what's said in court is 'a matter of public record', which even …Gov.UK acknowledges.

When I wrote newspapers, I attended 1,000 or more court hearings. Most were coroner's inquests and who doubts the same rules apply to criminal and civil cases?

At every hearing two or three and sometimes 50 or more colleagues and rivals were very careful to take accurate notes of every word spoken by witness, defendant or lawyer, coroner, judge or magistrate, clerk or anyone else. So careful, none of us had any compunction in asking the most bitter rival to clue us in on something we'd missed, and I never heard of anyone's worst enemy refusing to help.

I mention that to help make clear that unless a judge imposed specific restrictions in a particular case, there would be no procedural reason not to publish every single word… the only problem would be boring the reader!

That was long before - about 2011 - courts generally accepted audio recordings but still the same principles cover audio recordings, stenographers' notes, short-hand writing and any other official record.

What does that leave but the time and technical details involved in transcription? Those, by the way, are broadly similar. The difference is that audio recordings don't, as stenography and short-hand records do, need people to be present beyond a clerk loading up a tape and pushing a button.

How does that not put cost above, for instance truth and justice?

When there's to be an appeal, for instance, might the higher court not expect to be able to rely on a word-by-word account of what went before and would that not rely on a full transcription? Does that not leave two possibilities?

One is that no-one need be charged anything but postage for a transcription that was required by the court…

The other is that every applicant should be charged for any transcription, including all those first required by the court…

Which is least unjust in or of itself, I'm not sure but at the end of the day, charging significant amounts for transcriptions of court hearings turns the idea that what's said in court is 'a matter of public record' into 'a matter for rich people.'

2
  • 2
    "How could it be otherwise?" — the court could provide the sound recording, the OP would listen and find out what was said.
    – Greendrake
    Oct 26, 2023 at 0:25
  • 1
    Even by your own logic, 50 experienced journalists present in court and sharing their understandings of what occurred or what was said, is more akin to the role played by the stenographer, than the role played by the tape recorder.
    – Steve
    Oct 26, 2023 at 7:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .