Shortage of steno workers sets back court matters

LAST week a lack of stenographers at the Home Circuit Court and Gun Court resulted in cases being adjourned until as far as June this year, leaving attorneys and accused individuals irritated.

Court reporters or stenographers 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.

On Wednesday, January 11, attorney-at-law Kemar Setal was before the Home Circuit court to deal with a case and by extension, a possible renewed bail application. No stenographer was present and the judge had to adjourn the matter until a date in April, which was the earliest date that the court’s diary had to facilitate the case.

“Having no stenographer in the Supreme Court means no official record can be made, and the Supreme Court is a court of record. That means the cases cannot proceed. So, I would go to court ready for a case to move forward in getting it ready for trial but due to no stenographer being present, the case is adjourned to another date — a lot of times some far dates [are given] due to the number of cases that the court has each day,” Setal told the Jamaica Observer last Wednesday.

“It is frustrating for us as lawyers and for the accused person who is awaiting their trial. This is a factor that also contributes to the backlog of cases in the court system,” he continued.

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.

Last November the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) noted that the shortage of court reporters to produce transcripts has continued to affect proceedings in the Court of Appeal, with one prominent matter that was before that court at the time being put on hold.

Contrastingly, Setal’s experience was a bit different in the Gun Court. The same Wednesday, the judge in that court had utilised the court’s recording system in the absence of a stenographer, and proceeded with the cases listed for the day.

“With that being done, the cases in that court made progress. I somewhat understand why the Home Circuit Court may have not utilised that means of making the court’s records, as we know how technology can be unreliable at times. Also, I have seen where cases are being dealt with and attorneys forget to turn on the mic so nothing was actually recorded in that moment — therefore the court would have to go back to the record from the stenographer’s record to produce the court’s transcript,” he explained.

Setal told the Sunday Observer that the stenographer issue affects accused individuals both mentally and physically.

Physically, in the sense that another date is set for case management if the matter is adjourned and, as a result, the accused then have to wait a longer time to have their trial.

“Also, in a case where a bail application was to be made and there is no stenographer, the application cannot proceed without an official record of the court. This means that the accused person will have to wait a longer time to have their bail application made,” he said.

“And seeing the number of cases in the courts, the possible earliest subsequent date may be a far date from the date that the application was to be heard so the accused person would have to be in custody all that time waiting on a bail application.”

The Justice Training Institute (JTI), which operates as the training arm of the Ministry of Justice, 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.

In 2021 there were reports of court reporters at the Supreme Court being upset that their grouses over working conditions were not being resolved. In July that year they had written to Chief Justice Bryan Sykes complaining that they did not have the necessary tools to do their work.

Peter Champagnie, KC, told the Sunday Observer that last Tuesday an attorney from his firm encountered issues at court because no stenographer was present.

“I don’t know if it’s in relation to their term of employment, and I am very loath to speculate. I don’t know what the issue is but what I will say is that, if that is the case then clearly and undoubtedly it would have affected and will affect the smooth operations of any court — especially the criminal courts where a stenographer is required to record what transpires between witnesses, the judge, the defence lawyers and the prosecutors. It’s a court of record,” he emphasised. “So because it’s a court of record, that aspect of the equation is integral to the smooth operation of the courts. It’s an absolute necessity.”

On Monday, July 18, 2022, criminal cases in five courts at the Home Circuit Court had to be put off because most of the court reporters called in sick.

It was reported that nine court reporters were scheduled to work in those courts, but only two turned up.

Champagnie added that those courts do not operate like the parish court where there are no stenographers, as notes are taken by the judge, the defence attorney and the prosecutor.

“In the Supreme Court, criminal division, it is what is known as a court of record and there is an official record of what transpired, and that is generated by the stenographers — and that is what is used to generate what is called transcript and the official court records,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“That is what is used whenever there is, for instance, an appeal if there is a conviction. That is what they would rely on in terms of the Court of Appeal as their official notes of the court. So you will see from that perspective alone that it is important and very much a necessity for the process to go on.”

However, it was not the same experience for all attorneys last week. Attorney Alexander Shaw told the Sunday Observer that it was smooth sailing while he represented his clients for various matters.

“It never impacted me because I had a stenographer in the Gun Court One on Wednesday. I had no such issue,” he recalled.

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