A good deal of confusion surrounds a new law that prohibits insurance companies and corporations in the Commonwealth of Virginia from entering contracts that compel defense attorneys to work with a single court reporting firm (by the way, the new law appears in Virginia Code Section 17.1-1000 and became effective on July 1, 2018). Hart Reporting played a key role in the passage of the new law, working closely with Senator Mark Obenshain and our fellow court reporting firms in Virginia.
The new law is important for you and your clients and here’s why:
- Court reporters are duty bound to remain neutral and unbiased in all legal proceedings. That means avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest or favorable treatment to one party over the other. When a court reporting firm has a contractual obligation to one party in a proceeding, that contract immediately disrupts the independence of the court reporter. If that court reporter has any real or perceived incentive to provide favorable treatment to the party with which his or her firm has a contractual relationship, the independence and neutrality of the court reporter legitimately can be called into question.
- Court reporters may not shift costs to one party in favor of the other. Opponents of anti-contracting legislation point to the absence of incidents where court reporters have altered the official record to the advantage of clients with which they have contractual relationships. Indeed, that would be an extreme violation of a court reporter’s oath, but that’s not where a compromised relationship manifests itself. It happens when a court reporting firm in a contractual relationship offers discounted pricing to that party and then charges the other party more to make up for the difference. Before the law, those practices happened ALL the time and was a decided advantage to one party at the expense of the other.
- Court reporting firms must offer equal or comparable services to both sides. That means if one party requests realtime or an expedited transcript, the court reporting firm must offer the same service to the other party. Should one party choose not to make use of realtime or an expedited transcript, that is its choice, but they must have that choice and be aware of the other party’s request for such services.
- An attorney or a law firm may not be mandated by its client or a national office to work with a specific court reporting firm or court reporter.
- Court reporting firms may not manipulate the formatting of a transcript to increase the cost. This already was an unethical practice for any court reporting firm, but is reiterated under the new law.
- An attorney or party can request an itemized statement of rates/charges that have been or will be provided at any time during a proceeding.
- A court reporter or court reporting agency may not provide litigation support services, including trial preparation assistance, deposition summaries, or non-published transcript databases.
One last thing: There are those who suggest that anti-contracting laws are designed to stifle competition, to protect small court reporting firms from the natural order of a free marketplace. It is the height of irony that large, national court reporting firms, in particular, would make such a claim when it has been their practice for more than a decade to limit competition by preventing attorneys and law firms from selecting court reporting firms of their own choosing.
Ours should be a free marketplace where attorneys and law firms have the right and ability to select court reporters that fulfill their needs. That’s how the marketplace is supposed to work. And that’s now how it must operate in the Commonwealth of Virginia.