I became a court stenographer purely by chance. I was working in a legal firm and one of the women there told me about it. My shorthand speed at that time was 120 words a minute. I studied high-speed Pitman’s shorthand at night school for three years. To work as a court reporter you need a shorthand licence. In those days, the licence examination was held twice a year. It was a nerve wracking experience and there was a high attrition rate. The year I passed, only eight out of thirty-five candidates were successful. By that time I had a speed of 220 wpm.
I worked as shorthand writer in the Melbourne Law Courts through the 1980s and early 1990s. These were the days before computers and modern technology. We were a relatively small elite group at the Court Reporting Branch of the Justice Department: 46 reporters – about equal numbers of Pitmen pen writers and steno machine writers – and 30 typists.
As a court reporter, you provide a verbatim record of court proceedings. That means recording in shorthand every single word uttered by the judge, the barristers and the witnesses. On any day you could be rostered to work in the Supreme Court on a criminal trial, in the commercial or probate jurisdictions, on bail applications, or a lengthy judgment delivered by one of the judges.
A typical day for me would be working on a ‘running transcript’ in the criminal jurisdiction. The judges and barristers received a transcript of the morning’s proceedings at 2.15 pm, and the afternoon’s transcript by the end of the day. Four reporters and three typists were rostered for each trial. Each reporter would be on the bench for 15 minutes, then 45 minutes to dictate the turn to a typist and be back in court for the next turn. In those days, we were located in a building diagonally opposite the Supreme Court. We were literally running all day! Across the road, two sets of traffic lights, and up three flights of stairs to the waiting typist.
Working on a criminal trial, it initially came as quite a shock to be confronted with the dark underside of society. Cases involving sex, drugs or violence; sometimes all three. You encounter hardened criminals and stone-faced killers – many from those notorious crime families of the TV Underbelly series. You’re always aware of them, sitting in the dock, watching you as you come and go from court.
The Butterfly Enigma
In the staid setting of a court room, you can hear the vilest obscenities and swear words. If it’s something you’ve never heard before, you turn to the judge and ask to have it repeated. Barristers and judges rely on the transcript, so it’s your responsibility to record everything accurately. It also comes as a shock to many jurors, hearing such language. Some react with audible gasps!
In those days, court security was nothing like it is now. One of my first committal hearings was at the old City Court. That day a notorious armed robber was gunned down by a professional killer. We could hear the gunshots, just outside our court. Another incident happened outside Supreme Court 12. A crazed gunman ran screaming along the corridor, shooting at people. Two were killed, others wounded. Inside our court, people were shouting to “get down” as the shots rang out.
These days, audio recording has largely taken over, except for Supreme Court criminal trials. In America and Canada, however, the profession is alive and well, and shorthand writers are much in demand. Most judges have their own court reporter who goes with them from court to court.
Thanks so much for your guest post Lorraine. For your chance to WIN a copy of Lorraine's book The Butterfly Enigma, stay tuned for this week's Friday Freebie, where I'll be giving away a print copy thanks to JAM PR.