Assistive Listening Systems in Courtrooms: What Court Managers Need to Know

Ensuring all participants and observers can hear clearly during court proceedings is essential to fair and efficient trials. If jurors, litigators, defendants, judges, transcriptionists, and others in a courtroom cannot hear and understand what is being said, the due process of law is jeopardized.   

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires courts to provide accommodations such as assistive listening systems to individuals who have hearing loss or are hard of hearing. This article will highlight different assistive listening technologies and illustrate how they can be useful in court proceedings. It will also offer court managers best practices to ensure everyone has a positive listening experience in court.

Hearing Clearly in Courtrooms Can Be Difficult

Several factors can affect an individual’s ability to hear and understand speech in a courtroom. Hearing loss is one factor. Other potential obstacles to hearing clearly include distance from the speaker or audio source, acoustics (e.g., sound reverberates off hard surfaces like tile and marble and can be lost in high ceilings and annexes), background noise, not understanding the spoken language, and an inability to see and interpret a speaker’s facial expressions. This can happen when speakers face away from listeners, wear facial coverings, or participate in courtroom proceedings from a remote location (i.e., via a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom or Teams).

For these reasons, assistive listening devices can benefit anyone participating in court proceedings, not just individuals with diagnosed hearing loss.

There Are Different Types of Assistive Listening Systems

An assistive listening system includes transmitters and receivers and delivers audio to the listener’s ear. The system connects to a venue audio source, such as a microphone or TV, and transmits audio to receivers—typically small, portable devices that users borrow from the venue and wear on a lanyard around their neck. Listeners hear clear audio (ambient noise is filtered out) through headphones or earbuds attached to the receiver. Systems with neck loops, or personal induction loops, that connect to or are integrated with receivers allow users with telecoil-equipped hearing aids or cochlear implants to have audio delivered directly to their hearing aids and cochlear implants. (Telecoils are small copper wires coiled inside a hearing device. They enable the device to function like a miniature hearing loop.)

There are different technologies that support assistive listening systems found in courtrooms. Each system functions a little differently, but they all make hearing easier.

Hearing Loop: Also referred to as induction loop, a hearing loop system transmits an audio signal directly to a telecoil-equipped hearing aid or cochlear implant via an electromagnetic field. This greatly reduces background noise and reverberation that can diminish clarity of sound. Loop systems feature a hearing loop amplifier (usually referred to as a loop driver) and a copper cable that forms the actual “loop” and is installed in flooring or under carpet around the perimeter of a room. Loop receivers—portable units users can borrow for use while in the courtroom—let listeners who do not have telecoil-equipped hearing aids and cochlear implants benefit from this technology. They can listen to audio through headphones or earbuds connected to the loop receiver.

Audio over Wi-Fi: These systems let users stream venue audio to their smartphone. Users download a free app on their phone, log into the venue’s wireless network, select an audio channel (e.g., Courtroom #3), and use their smartphone as an audio receiver. Live or recorded courtroom audio streams to their smartphone, and they can listen with attached earbuds or headphones. If users wear Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids or cochlear implants, audio will stream from their smartphone directly to these devices. System managers can assign passwords to audio channels to limit access and maintain confidentiality. As an example, only individuals who are permitted to be in a specific courtroom would receive the password and be able to access the audio in that space. Audio over Wi-Fi assistive listening systems are useful for jurors, observers, transcriptionists, and anyone in a courtroom seeking a BYOD (bring your own device) option to hear speech clearly during trial. Courts with this type of system can meet ADA requirements for assistive listening by offering dedicated audio-over-Wi-Fi receivers for participants who prefer not to use a smartphone.

Infrared: Assistive listening systems that transmit audio to receivers via infrared light are popular in courtrooms and instances where confidentiality is critical because they only transmit audio to receivers that are within line of sight of the transmitter. If listeners leave the courtroom or obstruct their receiver, they will not receive the audio signal. To access the courtroom audio, users borrow a receiver and listen to audio through their own or venue-provided earbuds or headphones attached to the receiver. If users wear telecoil-equipped hearing aids or cochlear implants, they can borrow neck loops to connect to the receiver. The neck loop will ensure audio is transmitted directly to their hearing aid or cochlear implant.

Portable: Portable two-way communication systems that include transceivers (combination transmitter and receiver units) can be used for assistive listening and to facilitate simultaneous interpretation in courtrooms. Transceivers can be grouped and one transceiver designated as a “leader” unit. Listeners borrow transceivers that are matched to the leader unit and can hear the lead speaker through headphones or earbuds attached to the transceiver. Leaders speak into the transceiver via a headset equipped with a microphone. They can assign other transceivers in the group to be “listen only” or allow users to “listen and respond.” With this type of assistive listening system, an interpreter can use one transceiver and headset to hear the source language (e.g., a judge speaking to litigants or jurors in English) and simultaneously deliver interpretation to listeners in another language without needing additional equipment. This type of system is also helpful when people need to communicate with others across distance in the courtroom or in an anteroom.

Best Practices to Ensure a Positive Listening Experience in Court

Knowing the different types of assistive listening technologies and systems that are available can help court managers optimize their use. Beyond helping individuals with hearing loss and ensuring courts are compliant with ADA requirements, assistive listening systems make it easier for listeners in court proceedings to focus on what is being said and avoid missing parts of speech because of background sounds and distractions.

Below are steps court managers can take to facilitate communication in the courtroom and ensure all court participants and observers hear clearly during the judicial process.

  • Provide Assistive Listening—ensure courtrooms are compliant with ADA requirements for assistive listening devices and signage. Determine if an existing system is sufficient or if it needs to be upgraded or replaced. A system recommendation tool can help determine which technology and type of system is best suited for the space and user needs.
  • Promote System Availability—share information about assistive listening system availability and directions on how to access and use the system online, in correspondence with all court visitors, and through on-site signage. Train staff on how the system works so they can support end users and troubleshoot. Keep receivers in a visible, convenient location to encourage use.
  • Maintain Equipment—establish a schedule to regularly inspect and test assistive listening devices. This will help identify equipment damage or loss and ensure technology is always functional and available for use.
  • Optimize the Listening Environment—ensure all microphones, speakers, and A/V equipment are functioning, take steps to reduce background noise and improve acoustics, use closed captioning and audio description on videos, encourage all participants in proceedings to use microphones and speak clearly, and encourage courtroom participants to use assistive listening devices.
  • Ensure Remote Participants Are Heard—when participants located off-site in a jail or lawyer’s offices join court proceedings via a videoconferencing platform, their audio may only play through a courtroom speaker. This can make it challenging for interpreters, individuals with hearing loss, and anyone using assistive listening devices in the courtroom to hear. Confirm there is an audio output feed to direct sound from platforms supporting remote participants into the courtroom sound system that feeds into the assistive listening system.

Implementing assistive listening systems in courtrooms is not merely a matter of compliance with the ADA but a fundamental step toward ensuring fair and efficient proceedings. Whether through hearing loops, audio over Wi-Fi, infrared systems, or portable communication devices, these systems play a crucial role in fostering an inclusive and accessible judicial environment. Court managers, equipped with the knowledge of these technologies, can take proactive steps to optimize the use of assistive listening systems, thereby enhancing the overall courtroom experience for all participants and observers.

About the Author

Mikey Shaffer is consultant liaison at Listen Technologies, a leading provider of advanced wireless listening solutions for 25 years. Shaffer works with the AV consultant community to ensure they are up-to-date on ADA and global accessibility compliance requirements and informed about the latest solutions for assistive listening and communication.