An up to seven-month wait for court transcripts in Manitoba is slowing down the justice system and creating a legal catch-22 for those who need the written records to fight against other court delays.
Rohit Gupta recently waited nearly four months for the paperwork he needed to launch a legal challenge. The depths of winter had turned to impending summer by the time the court transcripts he'd ordered in February arrived in June. He needed them to file a motion arguing his client's case had already been unnecessarily delayed.
"Because there’s such a significant delay in obtaining transcripts, it essentially deters many people from even wanting to advance the argument to have their matter reviewed before the court," said Gupta, a Winnipeg-based defence lawyer who also practises in northern Manitoba.
As national research pushes for systematic access to transcripts from court proceedings across the country, Manitoba is dealing with a significant backlog and too few typists to meet the demand.
A regular-service transcript now takes six to seven months to complete, and a request for an expedited transcript — which is normally done within a week — now takes about 20 business days.
"It slows everything down. Transcripts are integral to our job," said Scott Newman, spokesman for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.
Requested by lawyers, judges, self-represented litigants, correctional institutions and interested members of the public, transcripts are crucial to the court process. They provide an official written record of what happens in court, and are necessary to move certain cases forward and launch appeals.
"It’s got a short-term effect on people who are stuck in jail and unable to access the courts to complain about their unjust detention, and it’s got a longer-term impact on people who want to proceed to trial, people who want to do appeals of their sentences, who say their sentences are too long or people who want to appeal their convictions," Newman said.
Transcripts are completed by transcribers who type, word for word, the digital audio recordings captured in court. Much of the work used to be done by a transcription firm, but Manitoba Justice now relies on individuals who are contracted to produce transcripts as they're ordered — and the demand is outpacing the supply.
Manitoba Justice arranged for transcription of more than 166,200 pages of court proceedings, representing more than 3,600 requests, in 2016-17, according to its annual report.
In a statement, a justice department spokeswoman acknowledged the backlog, and said the province is working on it.
"In the past, the bulk of Manitoba’s transcripts were produced by a transcription company that is no longer under contract. We currently have contracts with several individuals, and are in the process of finalizing other options to address the backlog in transcription services," the emailed statement reads, in part.
"We need a national system. I think it’s really unfair and confusing that people have to go through different systems in different provinces." - NSRLP director Julie Macfarlane
Manitoba Justice doesn't have any transcription contracts that are in excess of $10,000 and thus need to be publicly disclosed, the spokeswoman said.
However, Manitoba was making annual payments to an out-of-province transcription company up until last year. Regina-based Royal Reporting Services received $572,173 from Manitoba Justice between 2012 and 2017, according to the province's public accounts.
An employee of Royal Reporting Services, who didn't provide a full name to the Free Press, confirmed the company was handling court transcripts for Manitoba, but is now "in negotiations" with the province.
Transcript fees in Manitoba are regulated under provincial law, capping the regular cost for requesters at $3 per page. Newman said he has heard concerns the rates for contract transcribers are too low.
The National Self-Represented Litigants Project studied access to court transcripts across Canada, and found it varies widely from each province and territory. The study, released in June, found Manitoba's transcript-ordering process is straightforward, but the research didn't consider backlogs.
"We need a national system. I think it’s really unfair and confusing that people have to go through different systems in different provinces. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense. It should be something that’s systematized, but I don’t think anybody’s really thought about this before," said NSRLP director Julie Macfarlane, a law professor at the University of Windsor.
Macfarlane said the demand for transcripts has increased along with the numbers of self-represented Canadians appearing before the court.
"We have to find ways to get this record of what has happened to people (in court) in a much more efficient and less costly way. Sending it to someone who then types everything up word by word, page by page, I mean, there has to be technological alternatives to that that are a little more 21st century," she said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, August 8, 2018 at 8:50 PM CDT: clarifies timeline for Gupta's paperwork