Like most states, California has established a legal procedure for the signing and distribution of depositions. Once upon a time, that procedure was cumbersome—particularly for those in traffic-heavy areas of Southern California like Los Angeles. Witnesses were required to visit the court reporter’s office to review and sign the original deposition transcript. In that environment, it is perhaps no surprise that attorneys found a workaround. That workaround, called “the SoCal Stip,” is a stipulation by the parties, entered on the record at the end of the deposition, that relieves the court reporter of some of his or her duties under the California Code of Civil Procedure (the Code).
Specifically, the stipulation allows the original transcript to be sent directly to the witness or witness’ attorney for review and signature. The agreement usually also provides that someone other than the court reporter—typically the witness or opposing counsel—will notify the noticing attorney of any changes within the time allotted for reading and signature. When the process proceeds per the Code, it is the court reporter’s responsibility to retain the original transcript until it has been read and signed, and then to seal it and send it to the noticing attorney.
Is the Stip Beneficial?
According to Lori Raye and Karen Aligo, court reporters based in Southern California, many attorneys never think about why they are entering into the SoCal Stip or whether it is in their clients’ best interests. When the stip first became popular, the obvious benefit was that skipping the step where the witness reviewed and signed the deposition could save hours for each witness, since he or she wouldn’t have to travel to the court reporter’s office. However, in the decades since the stip came into fashion, a lot has changed.
Witnesses are no longer required to visit a specific location to review the original transcript. Technology has made it possible for deponents to review and note any changes on a certified copy, then transmit those changes to the court reporter along with an electronic signature. The witness is liberated from a sometimes-arduous journey, and the integrity of the record is protected. The court reporter retains the original transcript as required by the Code, ensuring that the document is not lost or tampered with. The court reporter is also able to certify any corrections made by the witness, and to ship a sealed certified transcript to the noticing attorney.
In the current environment, with the benefits of modern technology, many believe there is little advantage to anyone in using the stip, although some attorneys still favor its use because it saves the non-noticing attorney a little money, or because it may speed up the process slightly. Raye, who has been a freelance court reporter for more than three decades, says many attorneys haven’t thought about the downsides associated with the stip and are happy to follow the Code once she explains the benefits of the standard procedure.
Why Do Court Reporters Care So Much about This Issue?
Back in 1996, the Court Reporters Board of California (Board) determined that a court reporter was not professionally obligated to honor the SoCal Stip unless he or she had been a party to the stipulation. In 2015, after an attorney submitted questions to the Board on behalf of the CA Court Reporters Association (CCRA), the Board issued a Memorandum publishing and affirming that determination. The movement to stop the SoCal stip and insist on following the Code has gathered such momentum that Raye says she believes attorneys will have difficulty finding a “stip reporter” by the end of the year. In fact, many court reporters in the region have taken to calling themselves “Code writers” to set themselves apart from those who would accept the stipulation.
But, why are court reporters standing their ground on this issue?
One reason is that many court reporters have long been uneasy about being asked to abdicate their legal responsibilities. A court reporter’s position is one of public trust. They must be licensed and adhere to professional standards. The Code places specific obligations on them, including a duty of impartiality. The court reporter is also charged with ensuring that the integrity of the record is preserved.
The law, their training, and their own sense of professional obligation all tell them that their duties under the Code matter. The stip, in their viewpoint, stops them from fulfilling their professional obligations to preserve the integrity of the record and present a carefully and completely prepared document that parties, attorneys, and courts can rely on without hesitation.
Some also have concerns about risk to their reputations or licenses if the process takes a wrong turn after the transcript leaves their hands. Aligo, who has provided court reporting services since 1993, got her license in Washington and was accustomed to attorneys following the Code. When first confronted with the stip, after relocating to Southern California in 2008, she had a hard time understanding and accepting the process. She called the Board for verification before proceeding.
Like Raye, Aligo is optimistic that the stip will soon be a rarity. Though court reporters are still encountering opposition today, she believes that as attorney knowledge of the Code and its purposes increases, most will go by it because they, too, want to preserve the integrity of the record.
Judges in some California jurisdictions are taking action to make Aligo’s prediction come true. On October 3rd, the Presiding Judge of the Kern County Superior Court issued an order to enforce compliance with the Code, stating that because technology allows for secure and nearly instantaneous transcript delivery, “the rationale for the SoCal Stip no longer exists.” Court reporters’ concerns about the deposition stipulation may soon be relieved completely if other California courts take similar steps.
Ultimately, it’s up to the court reporter to decide whether or not they’ll honor the stip—each reporter must rely on his or her own professional judgment in determining how to fulfill their professional obligations. Regardless of an individual reporter’s decision, Esquire will maintain its commitment to providing our attorney clients with reliable, professional court reporting services and a certified record they can rely on.