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  • Writer's pictureKatie Millan

Lost in Transcription: How tiny errors can lead to legal chaos.

The famous horse cave paintings of the Lescaux caves in France
Lescaux cave paintings

Since mankind first discovered they could mark patterns on cave walls with ochre, it has documented history, from the only recently discovered wild pigs in Indonesia from 45,000 years ago to the Lascaux caves where the occupants illustrated their beautiful relationship with horses. The Egyptians were famous for their elaborate hieroglyphic scripts. For centuries, humans have documented their legal battles in glorious works of art, songs of the medieval bards and in volumes intricately illuminated by priests and clerics.

But as new technology was invented and improved at seemingly breakneck pace, new forms of documenting law decisions developed, such as shorthand and stenography where court reporters meticulously recorded court hearings and trials, preserving every detail of events as they happen. But just how accurate are those records?

In my 12 years of experience as a transcriptionist and in more recent times, proofreader and editor, I’ve transcribed audio and video files in just about every field imaginable, from medical research, health and government agencies, to corporate industries, media, and, of course, my personal favourite, the legal profession.

As recorders of fact, It is our attention to minute detail and the ability to use the vast range technology we have at our fingertips to ensure that every word spoken or uttered is reproduced accurately and there is no ambiguity. Court transcripts are vital and LEGAL documents, often used as tendered evidence in trials.

I have dedicated my career and banked my future business in ensuring I produce nothing but the best in terms of quality and accuracy. However, I have also come across transcriptionists of *cough* questionable experience, no matter how great they think they are. (Clearly, they’ve thrown audio into and just ran with what it spat out. No editing required! (or so they think 😨). It is my experience that for every 2 truly experienced and skilled transcriptionists, there are another 10 who don't know their commas from their semicolons. Anyone can buy a set of headphones and a foot foot pedal, and call themselves a transcriptionist, but had I let the word ‘horse’ go instead of ‘house’, the verdict might have been a little different.

Anyway, I digress. So what is the impact of incorrect or unclear transcripts?

Inaccuracies in court transcripts can misrepresent the testimonies of witnesses, defendants and other parties involved in the case. Misheard or misinterpreted statements could lead to false impressions or alter the intended meaning of critical evidence. As a result, the court may base its decisions on flawed information, compromising the integrity of the case.

Case in point, read the following sentence:

“Maintenance, repairs, services, calibrations of safe poles, speed detection and breath analysis equipment.”

A young man showing strength by holding a difficult position on a dance pole.

What it SHOULD HAVE read: “Maintenance, repairs, services, calibration of SAPOL’s speed detection and breath analysis equipment.

Court transcripts are often relied upon during the decision-making process, influencing the verdict and sentencing. Errors in transcriptions may lead judges and/or juries to draw incorrect conclusions or consider irrelevant information, leading to unjust outcomes. Innocent individuals may be wrongly convicted, while guilty parties may evade appropriate consequences due to flawed transcriptions.

TYPED: “You said she was writing in pain and breathing when they arrived...”

CORRECTED: “You said she was writhing in pain and breathing when they arrived...”

During appeals and judicial review processes, accurate transcripts are crucial in assessing the validity of a case. Incorrect transcriptions can hinder the court's ability to understand the original proceedings, making it challenging to determine if legal errors occurred. This may lead to delays in justice or the dismissal of potentially legitimate appeals.

TYPED: “Do you understand it to be the case that one of the reasons why a person on pharmacotherapy needs regular abuse is to determine their stability?”

CORRECTED: “Do you understand it to be the case that one of the reasons why a person on pharmacotherapy needs regular reviews is to determine their stability?”

Can you imagine the outcome should this have been admitted?

Just the simple error of typing "are" instead of “aren’t” can change the whole course of a trial. In civil cases, incorrect transcriptions can lead to the loss of legal rights and remedies. When court records do not accurately reflect the arguments and evidence presented, parties may be deprived of the opportunity to seek appropriate redress for grievances, affecting the overall fairness of the judicial system.

Errors in transcriptions can lead to confusion during legal proceedings. Lawyers may encounter difficulties when cross-examining witnesses or presenting their case coherently which can result in delays and disruptions, impeding the court's ability to efficiently administer justice.

TYPED: “It was - it was a freak point.”

CORRECTED: “It was - it was frequent.”

Inaccurate transcriptions have the potential to erode public trust in our legal systems. When individuals perceive that justice is compromised due to transcription errors, they may lose confidence in the fairness and reliability of the courts. This loss of trust can have far-reaching consequences on the credibility and effectiveness of the entire legal process.

The impact of incorrect transcription on court cases cannot be overstated. From influencing verdicts to undermining the judicial review process, transcription errors can result in severe repercussions for both individuals and the legal system as a whole.

And with that, I will leave you with one of my favourites.

TYPED: “My view is that patients are people that suffer like witches, by definition...”

CORRECTED: “My view is that patients are people that suffer, which is, by definition...”

An old crone witch.


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