Responding to a critical shortage of court reporters, the Los Angeles Superior Court system has decided to restrict the proceedings where they will be automatically provided beginning this month.
Starting Monday, the court system will no longer provide court reporters for family law and probate matters, forcing litigants to pay an estimated $800 to $2,000 a day to hire their own reporters. The court instead will prioritize felony criminal and juvenile cases, which are required by law to have reporters in the courtroom.
The shift in policy was prompted by a continually shrinking workforce of court reporters, who are crucial to courtroom proceedings because they convert the spoken word into a verbatim written transcript. The trend has been building for years in California and the rest of the nation.
“We are facing a crisis in our justice system,” said Sherri R. Carter, executive officer of the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. “Our top priority is to provide access to justice, and a critical part of that is litigants having an accurate record of court proceedings, especially the most vulnerable litigants.”
The Judicial Council of California shares Carter’s concerns.
“The lack of court reporters creates delays, uneven access to justice and jeopardizes rights that all Californians deserve, regardless of their income or where they live,” said Blaine Corren, a spokesman for the council. “We will continue to work with the Legislature, the governor and all parties on solutions to these problems.”
Capturing and preserving the official written record of court proceedings is critical to the administration of justice, the California Trial Court Consortium said in a January report analyzing the court reporter shortage. Transcripts are used by attorneys in cross-examinations and often reread to jurors during deliberations. Without one, an appeal might not be possible, the consortium concluded.
In Los Angeles County, the number of court reporters leaving Superior Court service has significantly outpaced the number of new reporters being hired, officials say. Specifically, the number of certified shorthand court reporters decreased from 430 in 2017 to 330 today, despite a $2,000 hiring bonus and a competitive benefits package.
Few training programs
Additionally, only nine institutions in California offer certified programs for aspiring court reporters. Cypress College is the only community college south of Bakersfield to offer such training.
“Along with college recruitment efforts, we have partnered with the California Court Reporters Association, the California Deposition Reporters Association and the National Court Reporters Association in attempting to fill court reporting positions where a statewide and national shortage exists, “ Carolee Freer, department coordinator for Cypress’ court reporting program, said in an email.
Graduates of Cypress’ court reporting program can expect to earn more than $100,000 a year, said Henry Hua, dean of the college’s Business and Computer Information Systems Division.
“We see the shortage in the field and have increased the capacity of our program for the past six years to meet the needs of the industry and our students,” Hua said. “We are trying to be part of the solution.”
In 2021, only 175 people took the state licensing exam, and only 36 passed. About 71% of the state’s 58 trial courts are actively recruiting court reporters.
It is uniquely difficult to become a court reporter in California, according to the California Trial Court Consortium report.
“Most states that mandate certification have only one exam required for licensure, but California has three,” the report said. “All three exams regularly yield low pass rates, but far more students fail dictation — the most specialized test — than pass. Moreover, the number of applicants attempting and passing the dictation exam has fallen in recent years.”
California also does not make exceptions in its licensing requirements for certified court reporters who relocate from other states. In 2020, state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have required California to issue reciprocal licenses to court reporters in good standing from other certification-requiring states.
Even an annual $30 million from the state Legislature to California courts to hire additional court reporters, with a focus on family law and civil courtrooms, has failed to attract more reporters.
Court reporters from Los Angeles Superior Court who belong to the Service Employees International Union, Local 721 rallied downtown Wednesday against forcing litigants to hire their own reporters.
“It’s outrageous that people will have to pay hundreds of extra dollars just to get basic court access, but what’s even more bewildering about this situation is that the money is already there,” David Green, president of the union, said in a statement. “Our own state legislators from here in Los Angeles made sure to include money in not one but two state budgets.”
Rose Nava, who has been a court reporter for 21 years at Los Angeles Superior Court, said she is angered by the removal of reporters from some civil cases.
“Nobody should have to pay hundreds or thousands of extra dollars just to have their day in court,” she said in a statement. “It’s insulting for anybody to have to pay. But for the vulnerable, the people just getting by, the people without any extra dollars to spare, it is an incredible injustice. It is the opposite of what this court is all about.”