With all humility and affection Dr. Tien, Dr. Gower and I, thank this great University for the very high honours which have been bestowed upon us today, and for the very generous citations imparted publicly before this very distinguished gathering. We are very proud to be admitted to the ranks of its graduates, and pledge our humble duty and devotion.
You will forgive me I do not deliver a learned address with some pretensions to philosophic content, which is usually expected of those whom this University confers a doctorate. I claim your indulgence, as a matriculant who has taken more than forty years to get his first degree from this University, for being unable to scale such heights. I propose, if I may, to speak about a practical problem which is of little academic importance or interest, but which for many years has bedeviled the administration of justice, and therefore a matter of some public concern.
Much of the work of our courts require witnesses to give evidence viva voce, to speak of what they saw and heard or otherwise perceived with their senses. It involves question and answer, with counsel asking the questions, sometimes helpfully, sometimes elliptically, and the witness answering the questions, sometimes clearly, sometimes evasively, often in confusion.
It is essential therefore that an accurate record of what they said in answer to counsel, and to the judge, be kept.
Mr. Pitman devised shorthand to record speech in pace with it. Taken down by highly skilled and experienced stenographers, his system, and others of a like kind, deliver an excellent record of what was said. In England, in any important case, the transcript is delivered the next morning after a day's evidence in court.
However, there is one serious drawback to shorthand. One hour's shorthand requires four hour's transcription, almost always by the shorthand writer himself, for rarely can anyone else read his notes. It is tedious work involving reading the shorthand, translating it, editing it and then typing it out. A team of five very expert shorthand writers are needed to cover a day's proceedings in court. Even in England, such highly skilled stenographers do not abound.
In Hong Kong they are very scare, and scare partly because the job requires a very good command of English and partly because the job is tedious and not many would willingly undertake it. It is, after all, much more attractive, if less well-rewarded, to be an executive secretary.
Although the staff of court reporters has increased with the years, we have nowhere enough of them. Ten High Court Judges and twenty District Court Judges sitting during the day would require the services of one hundred and fifty court reporters to give adequate coverage to the testimony given in their courts, to say nothing of cases before our learned magistrates. We do not have one hundred and fifty, nor, I believe , can we find them.
In the result, only criminal cases in the Supreme Court and, to a limited extent, in the District Court are covered.
In many criminal cases in the District Court, and, with hardly any exception, in all civil cases in both Courts, learned Judges, if I may say so with profound respect, take on the additional burden of being a scribe.
Almost all write in longhand. Proceedings accordingly slow down, and costs mount.
Far worse, it takes the Judge's attention away from his principle duty, which is to listen, to watch the witness, to consider, to reflect, and to form a judgement on the value and credibility of the witness. To oblige him to be the scribe is an appalling waste of talent and time.
If the case ended at first instance, then one can say, well, the effort was worthwhile, even if the case took longer and was more costly than it should have been.
But if there should be an appeal against the judgement, more defects manifest themselves. Few of us write legibly at speed. If the Judge's hand written note is to be typed out, almost invariably he will have to go through the first typescript to correct it, with subsequent re-typing. But some handwriting is so illegible that the manuscript has to be read into a tape recorder, usually by the Judge himself, and the tape handed over to an audio typist. In either event in may take weeks, and sometimes months, to prepare the transcript needed for the appeal.
This then is the problem.
Given the shortage of court reporters, and the tedium and time which transcription of conventional shorthand involves, how do you relieve the Judges of a quite unreasonable burden?
How do you allow them to do the work for which they are elevated to the Bench, namely, to judge?
How do you avoid the material increase in costs, in having lawyers longer in court simply because evidence has to be taken down in longhand?
What can you do to relieve the anguish of defendants waiting for months for their appeal to be prepared and heard while the transcript is being laboriously prepared?
What can you do to compensate a defended who languishes in gaol but whose conviction is ultimately quashed?
How can you ameliorate the frustration of counsel who cannot cross-examine at a natural pace, simple because he has to watch the Judge's pen so that he does not ask his next question before the Judge has recorded the last answer?
A solution to the problem would manifestly contribute to the efficiency administration of justice, and the unnecessary incarceration and anxiety of appellants.
With the invention of the tape recorder, an improvement seemed at hand. Place microphones in front of those who are expected to speak, witness, interpreter, counsel and Judge, and what they say will be accurately, and barring a 'Watergate', indelibly on record. Audio typists would transcribe what is on the tape: but the difficulty then arises: to whom do you attribute what was said? Those who speak do not first identify themselves, and voice, accent and context are the only guides to the audio typist. In the best of all possible worlds, as in this Congregation, where only one person has the floor, the difficulties are minimal: but in a court, where witnesses are often far from clear and where their evidence has to be interpreted, and counsel interrupt, it is time-consuming if not impossible to identify who uttered particular words. And this on the assumption that there is no background noise, and that tape recorders do not malfunction, which they do, without giving any indication that they are not recording properly, or not recording at all.
Elaborate systems were installed and tested in a number of countries; most, if not all, have been abandoned, because of the inability to identify the speakers, because of malfunctions, and because it took as long for an audio typist to transcribe tape recordings as to transcribe shorthand.
A new approach was imperative. In this age of technology, it would be surprising if some one did not come up with a system that would be reliable, economic and fast, but it has taken well nigh ten years to devise it. I use the present perfect tense, for such a system is in being and in use, and if you will bear with me, I propose to tell how it came about, for it is a minor triumph in technology.
There is a company in America which for many decades had made and perfected a machine called the Stenograph for writing shorthand mechanically. Like Pitman it was based on phonetics. It had a number of keys printed out most letters of the alphabet, and it worked on the principle of reproducing phonetically each syllable spoken, line by line, onto a roll of paper tape. Unlike a typewriter where only one key is pressed at a time, a number of keys can be depressed at one time to form a syllable. It worked exceedingly well, and in the hands of a trained operator was exceedingly efficient. Similar machines, indeed, were marketed by other companies within and without the U.S.A. but the task of transcribing the machine shorthand notes took as long as conventional shorthand; save that the stenographers, instead of having to translate the machine shorthand themselves, could teach and hire other less expensive operators to do it for them. It did represent an advance on Pitman.
Should you conduct a cold blooded analysis as to what is required to reproduce on paper what was said in court, you will see it involves four separate functions:
1. You have to record what is said in some sort of mark or symbol that can keep pace with speech.
2. Next you will have to translate those marks or symbols back into conventional language.
3. You have to allow for the limitations of your system (for example, that English is not spelt phonetically) and also to allow for errors and perhaps omissions.
4. You have to print out you corrected script quickly.
When judicial protests resonated in 1972, it seemed to me it was necessary to think of a solution to the problem; I soon discovered that function one, that of recording speech in pace with it had been mastered. A whisper from England suggested that mastery of other functions was well on its way in America.
Six months of enquiry, often up blind alleys, led me to the company that produced the Stenograph machine, and accordingly I paid a visit there in the autumn of 1973. I discovered that they had embarked on extensive research, with the aim of harnessing the power of the computer. They had assembled a team of ten researchers, expert in several disciplines: amongst others phonetics, linguistics, electrical engineering, electronic engineering, and computer technology. After five years of work they had developed a recording head, for use with a cassette tape, which could be fitted as a component to a modification of their ordinary manual Stenograph machine. When the keys of this new electronic model are depressed, two things happen: a magnetic representation of the keys depressed is made and retained on the cassette tape, and the keys themselves make a print-out on the paper as before. Each syllable uttered, then, is recorded magnetically and visually.
The tape in the cassette, which is sufficient for a day's evidence, is later fed into a computer, for which software in the form of a dictionary has been devised. The computer turns what has been put on the magnetic tape into conventional English through a line printer.
Thus a transcript is produced in an incredibly short time.
How it is all done I have no idea. I cannot enlighten you on the technological details.
But all at once the tedious translation of shorthand has been short-circuited, and the process of print-out accelerated through the use of the line printer.
So far then, the company has mastered another two of the four essential functions.
Function 3, that of editing the raw print-out, and turn it into an accurate transcript, remained a problem, given the limitations of phonetic shorthand and human frailty and accidents.
This raw print-out will in practice contain errors or ambiguities that require correction. These ambiguities arise from words that sound the same but are spelt differently: homophones I believe they are called, thus:
'Know (as in know-how)
and 'No' (a word rarely used in public in the Legislative Council):
'Fair' (as in the rose in May)
and 'Fare' (what the M.T.R. reckons the market will bear);
'Whether' (this or that)
and 'Weather' (which at present is uncommonly foul);
'Boar' (not quite the same as a male chauvinist pig)
and 'Bore' (which this will some become if I go on much longer).
The stenograph, based on phonetics, cannot distinguish between homophones, but the computer can be instructed to print out all the alternatives, so that the incorrect ones can be struck out and the correct word retained.
Other corrections may be needed, because the computer dictionary may be incomplete or simply because of errors in hearing.
With the earlier models court reporters edited the print-out and handed it to the technicians for them to correct the magnetic tape, which proved a minor bottle neck.
But the text can now be displayed on a screen by using a cathode ray tube, and can be corrected with the use of a standard typewriter editing keyboard.
Editing, which is the only other operation demanded of the highly paid stenographer, can therefore be done with comparative ease and speed.
The whole process is now known as computer-aided transcription. When first devised, the early systems relied on a large central processor, but that too has been cut out, and there are not produced compact stand-alone systems, not much larger than a desk, with a purpose-built minicomputer and a small cabinet, which perform all the functions of reading the magnetic tape, displaying the first print-out for editing and finally of printing the corrected text, all on the spot, and all with dispatch.
The Polytechnic, when it got to know about the system in 1974, proceeded with great foresight to train students in the use of the stenograph machine, and it has done so with remarkable success. To acquire the necessary skills to cope with the speed of talking in court is not particularly difficult, it is a matter of practice, and more practice, but to comprehend all that is said requires familiarity with the jargon, and, above all, command and understanding of the English language to a high degree. And I would hope that the graduates of this University who have such command of the language will not overlook the opportunities for public service which this field opens to them. Also, they will find the job well-paid.
But to return once more to the administration of justice: it is my humble view that the tools for salvation are to hand, and my pious wish that they be used.
Mr. Chancellor, reference has been made to my other University as the home of lost causes. We lose one, but sometimes, I like to think, we win one.