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Flying keys give entrée to courtroom drama

When Roxane Canning left school in the 1980s, an interest in all things legal led her not to law school but to court reporting.

“It was a bit of a romantic notion from seeing things on TV,” she says. “The courtroom atmosphere really appealed to me, and still does.”

Mrs Canning, of Westlake in Brisbane’s west, is one of 37 state court reporters – known as Court Assisted Transcribers or CAT reporters – who record proceedings in complex criminal or civil trials at a rate of often more than 200 words a minute.

CAT reporters use a stenograph machine, which looks a bit like a tiny typewriter but with  limited keys, to write shorthand in a digital format. The script is then transferred to a computer screen for transcribing.

“One hundred and fifty words a minute was the passing speed to qualify for the job when I was employed 26 years ago,” Canning says during a break in a long murder trial.

“Now it’s 180 words but you need to be writing 200 in court to be comfortable.”

CAT reporters make up just one section of the Justice Department’s 200-strong State
Reporting Bureau, whose job it is to record proceedings in selected civil, criminal, magistrates, district or supreme courts throughout Queensland.

Officers in other sections remotely monitor and record trials across the State, using remote cameras and computer monitors, then transcribe audio recordings of proceedings.

Recently the bureau has begun using voice recognition software to automatically generate transcripts, opening up career opportunities that have previously not existed.

CAT reporters are mainly assigned to criminal trials, allowing the judge and legal counsel to be supplied with a copy of the transcript at the end of each day.

The reporters work in pairs, with each reporter spending half an hour in court taking notes and then half an hour outside transcribing.

It’s demanding work but for Mrs Canning recording justice at work is a well-paid labour of love.

“Every day is different,” she says. “You have different jurisdictions, different
barristers, different judges…”
The mother of two teenagers also says a big plus of the job is working with “an incredible group of women”. “There’s a lot of knowledge, a lot of support’,” she says.

But becoming a court reporter is not easy.

Mrs Canning, as a school leaver, enrolled in a Melbourne college to study stenowriting by correspondence.

“I worked really, really hard to get here,” she says of her current position. “Two years of correspondence is not for the faint-hearted.”

While studying, she worked part-time for the State Reporting Bureau as a typist and practised her stenograph skills for hours each day before sitting for the bureau’s exams.

Fellow court reporter Valerie Carew-Reid entered the bureau as a “pen writer” of shorthand, then taught herself (machine) steno-writing from a book.

But the bureau’s acting operations manager, Sharon Hohns, took another route, gaining a diploma in steno-writing after two years fulltime study at Queensland’s (now defunct) reporting school at QUT’s Kedron campus in the 1990s.

After the school’s closure, aspiring court reporters were forced to enrol in schools in Victoria or South Australia.

To fill the gap, the State Reporting Bureau has moved to train its own CAT reporters, offering its in-house audio transcribers the opportunity to upskill.

However, the bureau's executive manager Kevin Meiklejohn stresses not everyone has the talent to become a court reporter.

“Powers of concentration, wide general knowledge, and a good command of English grammar and punctuation are essential for every bureau employee,” he says.

“People interested in becoming CAT Reporters also need to master the use of the steno writing machine and write at a minimum of 180 words a minute.”

Court reporters are required to undertake some travel, accompanying judges on Queensland court circuits where remote digital recording is not available. Some reporters also take leave of absence to do lucrative work overseas in places such as Hong Kong and The Hague.

Shorthand reporters were first employed in Queensland in 1876 as Hansard reporters covering Parliament.
Then in 1913 shorthand reporters, all of them male, were introduced to the Supreme
Court, to recording proceedings in Pitman script by hand.
Stenograph machines were introduced in the 1980s, heralding the end of the “pen writing” era.

Today CAT reporters earn between $78,000 and $84,000 a year.

The State Reporting Bureau will demonstrate CAT reporting skills during Law Week at the Brisbane Magistrates Court Open Day on Saturday May 21, between 10.15am and 1pm.

(NB: Spelling of Roxane is correct.)

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Last reviewed
19 May 2011
Last updated
5 November 2015
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