Hearing loops in court proceedings: The good, the bad and the squeaky

N.B. This article is of most relevance to court users with mild to moderate hearing loss, rather than d/Deaf court users who may have severe or profound hearing loss and who may require a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter or lip-speaker. The Advocate’s Gateway Toolkit 11: “Planning to question someone who is deaf”, is a valuable source of information for those working with a d/Deaf defendant or respondent in legal proceedings.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) estimates that “in the UK, more than 40% of people over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to more than 70% of people over the age of 70.”.

With hearing loss affecting such a large percentage of the population, it’s a pressing issue when it comes to communication at court. Hearing loss poses a particular barrier to accessing the contents of trials and hearings. When an individual has a mild or moderate hearing loss, they may not hear all of the verbal information presented during a case and may be required to exert additional attention in order to access the contents of proceedings.

When an individual has both hearing loss and a communication difficulty, ensuring effective access to proceedings can become even more challenging. Such individuals may have greater difficulty advocating for themselves to ensure their hearing loss is effectively accommodated, their attention may be further adversely impacted, or they may be unable to utilise alternative strategies to mitigate their hearing loss (for example, reading written notes).

In some cases, a defendant or respondent may be given access to a hearing loop or Infrared hearing system. Both function in a similar way, offering two main options for accessing amplification of the environment:

  • A device worn around the neck connecting hearing aids to the system when the aid is set to “T”.
  • A headphone set for users who do not have hearing aids.

A judge’s experience of court hearing loops

The former judge, HH Gordon Risius, lost most of his hearing following a head injury. This interesting article explores his experience of using courtroom hearing loops, and the implementation of a more advanced system in his courtroom to ensure his effective access to proceedings. He explained, “the typical loop system uses a single small microphone, designed to pick up sounds from the court-room generally, not just the voice of whoever happens to be speaking at the time. In consequence it can radiate such a multiplicity of sounds that an accurate note of the evidence or submissions is impossible”.

In this judge’s experience, the standard court hearing loop system did not allow him to hear evidence accurately. This view reflects the experience of many defendants and respondents I have assisted during court proceedings. HH Risius noted, “The loop system undoubtedly helps those with mild hearing loss, but does little for those whose hearing is more seriously affected. There is a practical solution, encouraged by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but it is expensive for the public purse…”.

Out of the loop: Issues with courtroom systems

HH Risius’s view is echoed by many defendants and respondents I have worked with. For example, I recently assessed a service user who required hearing aids to make use of his limited residual hearing. Speaking about his experience in the courtroom, he reported, “They have the… the… [gesture, pause] loop, hearing loop, but sometimes the loop doesn’t work. They were speaking very fast, I couldn’t understand anything”.

In an intermediary role, I have often seen hearing loops treated as a silver bullet, which magically ensures access to proceedings for those with a hearing loss. When they work well, loops can be helpful. However, at their worst, I have observed hearing loops to be painful, distracting and emotionally dysregulating. In some cases, they actively negatively impact the service user’s ability to follow the thrust of evidence, engage with proceedings, engage with their intermediary and understand the contents of hearings.

Case Study

I assisted a service user during a Crown Court hearing. He had a hearing impairment but did not use hearing aids. In conversation, in a quiet conference room, he required communication partners to speak very loudly, one at a time, ensuring they were facing him to allow him to support his hearing with facial expression and body language. The service user was also diagnosed with a mild learning disability, a large number of physical health conditions and several mental health conditions. He reported that he often heard voices, an experience which worsened when he became emotionally dysregulated.

At the hearing, the service user was provided with a hearing loop. The device was connected to headphones he could wear, which amplified the sounds in the courtroom. The device was tested before the judge entered and was set to a comfortable volume. When the hearing began, however, the prosecution barrister began to speak remotely via a CVP link. This caused the hearing loop to generate considerable feedback, resulting in a very loud squealing sound which caused the, already highly anxious, service user considerable discomfort and alarm.

The difficulty was raised with the judge. As no immediately available solution could be found, the judge decided that the hearing would have to proceed regardless. The feedback persisted, causing further discomfort and distress. Eventually, the service user elected to stop using the hearing loop.

To assist the service user, the judge permitted me to recap key points from conversations very briefly and loudly while facing him, during pauses in proceedings. As the service user had low literacy, it was not possible to implement other strategies to assist him, such as typing the contents of the hearing in a large font on a laptop screen or taking simple notes in his view. The limited strategies available meant that the service user became increasingly anxious and emotionally dysregulated, as he could not hear what the legal professionals were saying. He was instead wholly reliant upon my very brief, simplified summaries. While the legal professionals spoke, he repeatedly asked me, “Am I going to prison?”. Following the hearing, he reported that the hearing loop feedback had made the “voices worse”.

I have attended many hearings where hearing loops have proven ineffective, particularly where feedback has impacted their use. But feedback isn’t the only issue which impacts the usefulness of hearing loops. Typically connected to just one microphone in the courtroom, the hearing loop picks up every sound, from the feverish typing of notes to the busy shuffling of papers. These background noises all impact the audibility of speech sounds when listening via hearing loop and can be a particular issue for service users with attention difficulties or sensory sensitivities.

In other cases, the type of hearing equipment available impacts individuals’ access to proceedings. This anonymous account, published on deaf blog The Limping Chicken, reports that, upon attending a family court hearing, a respondent with severe hearing loss was provided with unsuitable equipment (an infrared receiver with earbuds) which would require them to remove the hearing aids they were dependant upon to hear. This individual explained, “There was no ‘plan B’. I was just told I could ask for things to ‘be repeated’”.

A recent written question submitted to UK Parliament in June 2022 requested “a list Crown Courts in England and Wales (a) with (b) without an operational hearing loop”:

  • 69 Crown Courts were “confirmed to have operational hearing loops”.
  • 19 Crown Courts werenot confirmed to have operational hearing loops”.
  • The response added, “The Crown Court locations which were not reported to have hearing loops on site may still have facilities available or be able to make reasonable adjustments to help users who need hearing equipment. Some of the hearing loop equipment used by HMCTS is portable and can be moved between Crown Court sites…”.

Practical measures

It is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. When they work well, hearing loops undoubtedly assist some court users with mild and moderate hearing loss. They are an essential tool to help improve access to legal proceedings.

However, issues with provision of a range of equipment and technical problems with the available equipment appear to result in poor outcomes for those with hearing loss. In some cases, a hearing loop can even be detrimental to an individual’s ability to follow proceedings, by causing distraction, distress, or by providing a smokescreen which masks the individual’s difficulties (many court professionals may assume that a court user can hear and understand everyone once a hearing loop is implemented).

It’s also important to bear in mind that a person with a hearing loss who is assisted by an intermediary is likely to have difficulty hearing the intermediary while using a hearing loop. They may need to take off the hearing loop in order to hear the intermediary, while intervention from the intermediary may prevent them from hearing the signal from the loop as clearly. As such, intermediaries may need to focus more on assistance outside the courtroom, in conferences, to support the service user’s understanding.

When working with a court user who requires a hearing loop, the following measures may assist:

  • Learn more about the individual’s hearing
    Do they use a hearing aid? Do they know how to connect to a hearing loop? Have they used one at court before? What was their experience? How much can they hear with a hearing loop? All of this information can help the court to prepare in advance to accommodate a court user’s needs (for example, by ensuring wireless infrared access to the hearing loop system is available).

  • Avoid hybrid hearings
    Remote attendance by some parties can result in feedback for hearing loop users.

  • Trial the equipment in advance
    Ideally with the service user present. This will help ensure the volume is set to a comfortable level. It may assist for a ‘helper’ to speak from key locations in the courtroom (e.g. the judge’s seat, the prosecution bench), to ascertain what volume will be required and to acclimatise the service user to how the loop will sound.

  • Provide a mechanism for the individual to signal if in difficulty
    This should be agreed with the judge and explained to the individual in advance. The defendant or respondent could hold up a card or use a signal to indicate they are unable to hear. Be aware that they may find raising the issue intimidating, especially if required to speak during proceedings.

  • Minimise background noise
    All efforts should be made to reduce background noise, which may be picked up by the hearing system. Measures could include, turning of the microphones of parties attending remotely or encouraging advocates to use digital rather than paper bundles (which cause considerable rustling).

  • Consider seating position
    Being able to see the face of each speaker provides additional visual information (e.g. facial expression and mouth shape), which can support individuals with hearing loss to understand speech more clearly.

  • Use a ‘hearing rating’ system
    An intermediary can monitor a service user’s ability to hear by encouraging them to use a visual self-rating scale. The intermediary can then raise any issues with the court, and/or take a particularly careful note of verbal information raised while the individual is struggling to hear, to be recapped in conference.

  • Allow longer conferences and breaks
    For the individual’s legal team to carefully check their understanding of key points to ensure nothing has been missed or misheard. If the individual has an intermediary, they may not be able to access simplification and explanation during the hearing itself. As such, additional time may be required for this during breaks and conferences. Bear in mind that listening to court proceedings with hearing loss via a hearing loop is very likely to place additional demands on any individual’s attention, which may have a cumulative effect over the course of a day, resulting in fatigue and inattention.

  • Provide a clear written note
    For court users with appropriate literacy skills, a clear written note of the day’s key points will help ensure important information is accessible and important information has not been misheard.

If problems with a hearing loop arise…

  • Provide a live typed or written note of proceedings in sight of the service user (dependant upon their literacy level).

  • Use visual aids to support the service user’s understanding, e.g. drawing out a sequence of events.

  • Permit an intermediary to provide frequent loud summaries of what is being discussed, facing the service user.  

  • Permit the service user and intermediary to attend remotely from a different room. This will allow the intermediary to provide loud, real-time simplification of proceedings in a quieter, one-to-one listening environment.
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