Since a 2017 change in state regulations, Allegheny County has directly paid Court Reporters to prepare transcripts of court proceedings requested by outside parties, generally law firms. Previously, Court Reporters were paid directly by requestors for preparation of transcripts.
Allegheny County has generally employed about 35 full-time and two part-time Court Reporters. Court Reporters’ salaries, transcription fees, and benefits for the audit period of July 1, 2017 through October 31, 2019 totaled $6,418,298.
“The necessity and value of the service these dedicated employees provide can’t be overstated,” said Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, whose office conducted the audit. “Our court system and the vital outcomes it delivers for so many of our citizens could not be conducted without their work, and their dependability and accuracy is crucial. For these reasons, it is also necessary that law firms who utilize the Reporters’ services hold up their end of the bargain and don’t burden our taxpayers with the costs of work which should be paid for by private parties.”
While full payment for completed transcripts is not required until delivery, a deposit is required. Under state regulation, this fee is set at 50 percent of the estimated cost of the transcript. However, the regulation also provides the alternative option of charging a flat $50 for the deposit, which is the option Allegheny County has elected.
Records show that as of February 18, 2020, when auditors’ analysis was conducted, almost $32,000 was due to the Courts for transcripts which had never been picked up by the requestors. This indicates that, beyond the $50 deposit, the County has paid the remaining cost of the service provided by Court Reporters to prepare that transcript, which can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Auditors concluded that this illustrates that the $50 deposit is likely too low an amount to ensure that transcripts are only requested when necessary, and that the County should consider switching to 50 percent of the estimated cost of the transcript for deposits.
“Fifty dollars isn’t what it used to be, and for a law firm conducting a case in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s virtually nothing. But for our Court Reporters it means hours of work and, for our taxpayers, the costs of that work. If law firms are unwilling to pay the cost of the transcripts they request, our taxpayers can’t be asked to foot the bill for them,” Wagner said. “Charging firms the more substantial deposit fee provided for by state regulation would reduce the amount of Reporters’ time and taxpayers’ resources going toward preparing unnecessary transcripts, and reduce the uncompensated amount in the event transcripts aren’t picked up.”
The audit also found that local law firms who do regular business with the Courts have generally not been required to make deposits when they submit transcript requests and have not been required to pay for transcripts in full before delivery. The amount of transcription fees that had not been collected from these firms for delivered transcripts was more than $29,500 as of February.
“There’s no question that our court system should have cooperative relationships with the law firms that utilize it on a regular basis, but providing favorable terms to some is not how government should be conducted. In my own office, we have worked to modernize our relationships with vendors and how payments are made to increase timeliness and convenience. The courts should be doing the same to increase convenience for those making payments and collections that reduce costs to our taxpayers,” Wagner said.
The audit recommends that the County establish drawdown accounts for firms which do business regularly with the Court of Common Pleas, as it has for some other Court functions.
“In a time where every dollar in public funds is going to be increasingly precious, costs that can be recouped from parties like law firms utilizing government services must be pursued vigorously, and processes improved to increase compliance and convenience,” Wagner said. “My office is also engaged in a national initiative to ensure that court costs and fees do not fall unduly heavily on those with the least ability to pay, resulting in lifelong disadvantages. By ensuring that those who can pay do, we can reduce the burden of the costs of our court system on those seeking rehabilitation and recovery.”