NEWS ARTICLE ● Toronto Star Feb 4, 2021
Ontario’s court transcriptionists are struggling with
‘horrible’ audio quality at Zoom hearings
By Alyshah HashamCourts Reporter TORONTO STAR
Thu., Feb. 4, 2021
“Are we able to do anything about the feedback,” asks a defence lawyer at the start of the virtual bail review hearing last month.
The participants try muting themselves, but the garbled background sound — as if the speakers are caught in an electronic windstorm — remains. When the accused gets on the line from jail, it’s even worse. She appears to be speaking via a glitchy drive-thru speaker at the bottom of a well. Whole sentences can barely be made out.
The transcript, based on an audio recording of the court hearing, looks like this:
THE COURT: This prescription that (the accused) was on, can you help me to understand what is (indecipherable) directed at, was it directed at anger, or was it directed at depression, or (indecipherable).
THE WITNESS: It was...
THE COURT: (indecipherable).
THE WITNESS: Sorry.
THE COURT: Sorry, go ahead, ma’am.
THE WITNESS: It was directed at a (indecipherable).
THE COURT: Okay. Thank you. That’s helpful.
THE DEFENCE LAWYER: Yes, Your Honour, just — just because it’s (indecipherable) this time. As far as I know (the accused) never had a formal diagnosis beyond (indecipherable) of society.
Over 24 minutes, the term “indecipherable” is used 44 times in the transcript, sometimes in place of single words, sometimes standing in for a stretch as long as 15 seconds. This is one of four official court audio recordings heard by the Star in which it is extremely hard or impossible to make out what’s being said for parts of the hearing, which include legal submissions in a case involving allegations of child abuse.
Transcriptionists in Ontario have dozens more examples from family, civil and criminal court — cases involving serious charges and sensitive testimony.
“It would make filing an appeal near impossible. Cases have been ordered for retrials on those grounds before,” said Daniel Brown, vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
“If we don’t have an accurate record of what was said in court, how can any court assess where there is an issue,” he said. “This should be a huge concern for everyone in the justice system. It doesn’t just relate to wrongful convictions but also wrongful acquittals. Either side may choose to challenge a judge’s ruling, and that could be almost impossible given the state some of this audio.”
When these happen in a normal courtroom, each speaker from the judge to the witness to the lawyers has their own microphone with their own audio channel. So if it’s hard to hear something, the transcriptionist can isolate a channel or see if another microphone picked it up. It also easier to tell who’s speaking, especially if voices sound the same. With Zoom, that multi-channel recording doesn’t exist — all the audio comes from one source. Virtual hearings also create more opportunities for muffled voices, feedback or background noise....
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