Truth, Trust and Transparency in the Courts, Byline Festival

Recently, our CEO Sophie Walker joined Panellists Lucy Reed, Adam Wagner & Mark Hanna to talk Truth, Trust and Transparency in the Courts at Byline Festival. We were there recording an managed to capture what was presented. For a copy of the transcript as produced by our speech recognition technology JUST: Transcription, please visit here.

Sophie Walker

00:12:13 - 00:22:10

As an appeals lawyer, I would hear a case before I saw it. I would hear it coming down the corridor on a trolley  piled high with transcripts. These would be beautiful 200 page bundles containing every word of the case. So from the first moment of the motions hearings, as they call it in the States, right to the very last moment when the defendant was sent down. Every word was captured, recorded, transcribed, saved. Now that was 10 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama and this was a death row case. And ordinarily, the English Criminal Justice System is a cut above, Montgomery's, but not when it comes to transcription.

Fast forward five years and I had helped set up a criminal appeals charity working to overturn miscarriages of justice. I decided to take on my first case, which involved a young man who would be convicted of killing his nephew. Not only did he say strongly that he didn't do it, but his sister's believed him and they were standing by their brother, so I thought, okay, I'm gonna give this case another look. The first thing I did was called at the Central Criminal Court. I found out who the transcription company and gave them call.  I said, I want every word, yes - from the first word right to the very end, including the sentencing. Yes, please. How much will that be ? That's £20,000. £20,000. Funnily enough, the legal aid agency said no to that funding request. I had to get made do with summing up, which included only a tiny sliver of the information I wanted about that case.

That started then a journey for me into what became a complete obsession into court transcription. I realise that this is a very unsexy, possibly boring area of legal practice, but I have this theory.  If we can transform those unsexy bits, we can change the entire system for the better. And I want to tell you why I think that transcription could be one in one of those corners of the justice system that if we got right, we could change everything.

So why should we all care about transcription ? Well, the first off, its what Lucy was talking about. It really helps to really know what happened at your own court hearing I love that expression "different truths". I think that's exactly right. So often times, in a case I will turn my client at the end of the hearing and I'll say "So how do you think that went"?  They respond -  Oh, it was so stressful, I couldn't bear to listen. And I say - What do you mean ? We just want won. The Judge gave us everything we wanted. But actually, when you're having to hear difficult or potentially confronting information, it's really hard to listen.  We know that's true from when you go to a doctor's appointment. Sometimes the doctor says something and you walk out and  have no idea what you've just been diagnosed with. Well, I think that happens in courtrooms as well. It's really hard to listen, particularly as Lucy says, If someone is saying something that you perceive as attacking you.  And I have this theory.  I think if we could provide people with a written transcript or what was said to them at the end of the case and gave them time to really think about it, people might be less likely to appeal because they would have really understood what happened first time around and accept the court's decision.

But what happens when something has gone wrong and you want to try and get a second opinion?   Well, then you would try and find a lawyer and if its a legal aid lawyer you're looking for, that's no easy thing to do.  The lawyer's going to ask you what happened, and you're going to say - I don't know - other than the fact that I lost a lot of really badly, and the in judge hated me - and that's sadly not a ground for appeal. So you've got to go and find a transcript of your hearing. It's a very difficult process and very expensive. Let's say you have money, you can stump up the £120 an audio hour. You can track down the right transcription company. You fill out the EX107N and it  doesn't get rejected enough. Finally, you have a transcript, but ny now your time for appealing is up.  Now you have to find a lawyer willing to take your case, tell you whether there is merit in appealing and are willing argue it out-of-time.  Well, that is no way to run a justice system.

Then there's the third point, which is that we have a common law system, right ? So that means the cases are meant to be decided in a similar way by comparing like cases to like. Well, for some reason, in 2014 the numbers of judgments to get published dropped dramatically. We are now publishing thousands less judgments each year than we were. No one quite knows what happened, but it a real problem the justice sector. And its a problem that stretches beyond the UK. There are many common law countries that rely on English case law as precedent, for example in Australia, South Africa, and if they're not able to get access to the cases, they're also lacking a crucial resource for developing legal doctrine

The problems we face with transcription has repercussions beyond the UK justice system.

Another factor is reporting of cases. How are journalists able to report a case correctly if they don't know what the hell happened  in the first place?  As oftentimes it can take weeks to get a transcript, but by  then, the story is out in the public domain and it is going to make it very hard indeed to change the narrative.

I wonder whether over the next few days we're gonna hear quite a lot about data?  But if instead we see judgments, not as a description of what happened in the case, or ruling as to the outcome, but rather as containing fascinating little bits of data. If we analyse the data as a set, we would actually know what happened in our courtrooms. This is the thing that really this is what gets me worked up.  At present, HMCTS is pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into the digitisation of court system. It is a broad sweeping programme of reform that is being completed despite the fact that we don't know what's actually happening in our courts. Because no one has the dataset.  The data is instead stored in pdfs, in silos scattered across the justice sector.  We need to work hard to change that.  

Part of the reason why transcription is so expensive is that the transcription industry hasn't changed in decades.  Let's start with the audio recording of hearings, which still uses tape.  The audio recording is then couriered to the typist, who creates a transcript of the record.  This is then saved as a pdf and then sent back to the court or litigant.

I think that's a pretty straightforward changes that we could bring to that to bring the cost and improve accessibility of court transcripts.  A couple of years ago couple of years ago, I set up a social enterprise that harnesses technology to overcome barriers accessing justice.  We use technology that is now on everyone's phone - speech to text technology - to reduce the cost of creating to court transcripts by around 50%.

Our mission is to disrupt the court transcription industry and to make transcripts much more accessible.