What does the shortage of court reporters in California mean for women desperate to have their day in court?
After making elaborate arrangements for her three children to be picked up from school, taking time off from her job as a nursing assistant, and battling 40 minutes of traffic on the 101 to get to San Jose, Lolade walked into the Santa Clara County Superior Court last October for her scheduled protective order and divorce hearings.
But when Lolade arrived (she asked to only use her first name), she was told she would not be provided with a court reporter — none was available. The court told her she could go ahead with the hearing without one, have her hearing continued, or hire a private attorney.
Court reporters, who are skilled stenographers, are trained at creating verbatim transcripts. Those documents lay the foundation for filing an appeal if a client is convinced that her or his rights were violated. They can also be used to review judges’ actions and behavior, and sometimes reveal how unfamiliar many family court judges are about domestic violence law.
Kemi Mustapha, the supervising attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid of Santa Clara County, who is representing Lolade, had filed a request with the court for a pro bono court reporter, saying her client was entitled to that service under California law.
But in Lolade’s case and in many others, such requests fall on deaf ears. They are told that the law says a reporter will only be provided if one was available, and often they are not. Jenna Gottlieb, a colleague of Mustapha, said the courts have been slow to recognize the gravity of the problem. “I made about seven to eight requests for a court reporter” in the last year, she said, “but got no response.”
The lawyers’ experiences are representative of what legal experts are calling a “crisis” that has been building in the state’s family courts for almost two decades. A severe shortage of court reporters in California and the rest of the nation is denying thousands of poor litigants access to justice, contributing to what critics call an two-tiered legal system.
Many of these litigants are forced to represent themselves, trying to navigate a system designed for attorneys. In the first two years of this year alone, some 30,000 hearings were held without a court reporter in Los Angeles County’s family courts. The shortage adds to the layers of challenges in family court that have a particularly outsize effect on low-income women of color. For want of a document, civil rights advocates say, some women lose custody of their children, return to an abuser or become homeless.
Many other states have authorized electronic recording to generate an officially recognized verbatim record of court proceedings. For some, it was the COVID pandemic that nudged them in that direction. While technology could fill the widening gap between court reporter availability and demand, current California legislation strictly restricts the courts’ use of electronic recording.
At least two attempts by the state to change that were beaten back by the union representing court reporters. And because of that, California, which is usually in the forefront of progressive changes, is now among the few states that has yet to go digital in family court.
Women’s rights advocates say most litigants just don’t have the money to hire a court reporter at the going rate of $800 an hour, so they don’t pursue their case.
These are some of the issues I’ll be exploring with support from the 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. My hope is that the stories will help lawmakers in
Sacramento realize that by not providing low-income domestic violence survivors a transcript of the hearing, they are violating their rights.