Assistive Listening Solutions for Court Settings: A Guide

Conversations in courtrooms and other judicial facilities are some of the most sensitive there are. For this reason, courts are typically expected to provide higher levels of assistive listening support than other public facilities.

The legal requirements for assistive listening support in U.S. courts are complex, as the Federal judiciary is exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts has official policy that:

all federal courts provide reasonable accommodations to persons with communications disabilities. Each federal court shall provide, at judiciary expense, sign language interpreters or other appropriate auxiliary aids and services to participants in federal court proceedings who are deaf, hearing-impaired, or have other communications disabilities.

Most state and local courts systems take the position that facilities must provide listening equipment even with no other audio amplification system present, to ensure that hard of hearing participants can participate fully.

The court environment presents a number of challenges to someone designing for hearing assistance. In particular:

  • The need to support hearing impaired individuals when they are listening to several different speakers (eg judge, witnesses, lawyers) who may have different degrees of intelligibility and speak at different volumes
  • The need to provide listening support in different settings:
    • Courtrooms / jury box
    • Deliberation rooms
    • Judge’s bench
    • Staff areas,
    • Counsel tables
    • Conference rooms.
  • The need to provide security against unauthorized listeners
  • The need to selectively mute or mask certain parts of the conversation (for example during bench conferences between an attorney and the judge)
  • The need to work seamlessly with language translation equipment in multilingual situations

Due to these factors, not all wireless assistive listening systems are suitable for use in courtrooms. For example, we do not recommend FM systems for court settings because their signals are not secure and can be easily picked up using an FM scanner device.

Assistive Listening HQ has helped a number of courts develop ADA-compliant solutions to ensure that legal proceedings provide convenient and accessible audio feeds. Below is an outline of the systems we recommend most frequently for judicial settings.

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Top Recommended Systems for Courts:

Infrared (IR) Systems

Infrared assistive listening systems are the most popular choice for court settings. Their major benefit is that – because they send the signals via invisible light beams – the audio cannot be picked up by anyone outside the room, ensuring privacy. With an infrared system, one or more transmitters (called “emitters”) are placed around the room to provide full line-of-sight coverage to the listeners. Listeners use neck loop receivers provided by the facility to tune into the broadcast. The IR transmitter connects to the existing sound system using standard audio connectors. The transmitter and receivers automatically connect as soon as they are in range and there is no need to tune into a certain channel in most cases.

Other considerations for IR assistive listening systems in courts:

  • Connection is seamless (no setup)
  • Transmission is private – the signal cannot penetrate through walls or other objects, so the session stays in the room
  • Infrared signals are susceptible to line-of-sight interference. If a person or object stands in-between the receiver and emitter, the link is broken.

Wi-Fi Systems (WaveCAST)

The WaveCAST system works by transmitting the audio feed from speaker to listener over Wi-Fi – the same radio technology used to provide internet connectivity in homes and offices. Speakers must use microphones connected to the sound system and WaveCAST. All who are connected to the Wi-Fi (which can be password protected) can listen in on their smartphones or tablets using a free app downloaded from the iOS or Android app stores. Once the app is downloaded, the listener’s phone will automatically receive the WaveCAST transmission once connected to the venue’s Wi-Fi. WaveCAST offers a more discreet Assisted Listening Solution as only those that are connected to the courtrooms secure WIFI can ‘tune in’. For users who do not have smartphones or do not want to download the app, WaveCast receivers are also available, and an be provided to individuals as needed.

Other considerations for Wi-Fi assistive listening systems in court settings:

  • Ideal for small to medium venues or where Wi-Fi coverage is already provided (for example jury waiting areas or briefing rooms)
  • Easy to install (no need to retrofit facilities or mount emitters to walls)
  • Listeners can sit anywhere within range and there is no line-of-sight requirement
  • Cost-effective, especially with increasing smartphone adoption
  • Complies with 2010 ADA guidelines
  • Discrete use for listeners who may be uncomfortable using facility-provided listening devices
  • Can be password protected for privacy

Digital Assistive Listening Systems (Digiwave)

Ideal for small group meetings, judges chambers, attorney-client consultations etc, the Digiwave assistive listening system provides the best mix of portability, privacy, and top audio quality. The Digiwave system from Williams Sound uses a specialized FM “frequency hopping” encrypted signal to ensure that unauthorized listeners are not able to hear the audio feed. Digiwave transceivers can both receive and transmit a signal simultaneously, so they are ideal for facilitating back-and-forth and small group conversations. The Digiwave system is portable and handheld, so it can be easily moved to the office or room where it is required at any time.

Other considerations for Digiwave Assistive Listening Systems in Legal Settings:

  • Ideal for high noise environments reduces background noise
  • Allows for conversation between participants
  • Allows the participants to move around
  •  Ideal for ‘closed loop ’ conversations amongst a small group
  • Digital signal is encrypted for security

Hearing Loops / Induction Loops for Courtrooms

Court settings with large audiences may also want to consider hearing loop systems. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court recently installed a hearing loop system to help the audience hear oral arguments. A hearing loop (AKA an audio induction loop or telecoil system) is an assistive listening system for use in a courtroom where participants with hearing aids that have ’T-coils’ are automatically ‘tuned in’. The sound is transmitted to the listeners through a cable that runs around the perimeter of the coverage area. The hearing loop provides a wireless signal that is picked up by the T-coil enabled hearing aid.

Considerations for Hearing Loop Systems in Courtroom Settings:

  • Cuts out unwanted background noise
  • No need to use a receiver/headset ( for those with t-coil hearing aids)
  • Sound goes directly to the t-coil compatible hearing aid
  • Hearing loop coil is hidden from view
  • Unlimited number of users within the ‘loop zone’
  • Requires a major renovation of the floor area to install (ideal for installation during a renovation).

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