Judging the market: trends in courtroom installations

Courtrooms are increasingly migrating to digital workspaces, a trend that means more opportunities for pro AV. But as Tim Kridel explains, the market is more nuanced and challenging than it sometimes appears.

Courtrooms and prisons aren’t such bad places to be – as long as you’re there to do some work rather than being on trial. And that's increasingly the case for AV professionals, judging by trends that are playing out across a lot of EMEA.

The UK justice ministry, for example, is spending over £700m to modernise the courts and tribunal services. 

“I think that the bulk of that is going to record/case-management systems,” says Stephen Whitehead, who manages the Centre for Justice Innovation’s Better Courts Programme. “But it does also cover the scaling up of AV systems in courtrooms to enable links to prisons and police stations for entering a plea and giving evidence. 

“For prosecutions, we’ve definitely moved away from paper-based systems to electronic record keeping. Most prosecutors are now using iPads.”

Even the trend toward digital documents benefits pro AV because it’s one more reason to deploy digital signage in courtrooms, for easy viewing by the jury. Some AV firms also provide the iPads and Wi-Fi networks that support them, so they’re positioned to go after those legal applications, too.

One recent beneficiary is AVMI, which won a £7.2 million project that was part of the UK Ministry of Justice’s Digital Business Model initiative, whose goal is to digitise every magistrate court in England and Wales by this year. AVMI deployed Barco’s ClickShare wireless presentation system paired with Phillips 48-in and 55-in LED displays that all courtroom participants could view, along with 19-in units for counsel.  

The magistrates project is noteworthy for its time frame, too. AVMI was invited to present a solution in January 2012, and deployed a proof-of-concept system in February 2013 that served as a pilot for one year. Installations started in January 2015 and finished that June. So one takeaway is that when selling into the legal market, don’t be surprised if a project takes years – something to consider from a cash-flow perspective.

Another time factor was that AVMI had roughly six months to deploy the system to more than 750 courtrooms across 214 locations. Maintaining that tight schedule required coming up with a design that was repeatable but still had enough flexibility to be tweaked quickly for courtrooms that were outside the norm.

“For prosecutions, we’ve definitely moved away from paper-based systems to electronic record keeping. Most prosecutors are now using iPads.”

End user input is critical

Success also hinged on getting everyone on the same page. In any legal installation, the worst-case scenario is a system that judges, counsel and others find user-unfriendly to the point that they either avoid using it or constantly require a tech to babysit. 

The judges and magistrates have an involvement in the form of a steering group,” says Jason Turner, AVMI business innovation director.  

“The key to it all was having the understanding of the customer’s business processes in order to get rid of all the risk of somebody saying, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘That doesn’t work.’ You’ve dealt with all of that in advance. You have buy in from the pilot phase. Then you go into survey and rollout.”

But it’s not always possible to execute that strategy. For example, AV pros don’t often get to work directly with end users such as judges and police when designing systems. When guidance comes instead from intermediaries such as a facility’s AV staff, important nuances can get lost in the relay process.

“Often they are not directly involved, although wise consultants will bring them into the loop if possible,” says Karl Winkler, Lectrosonics vice president of sales. “Most often, the consultants and integrators work with the on-staff IT/AV team, which is the right approach. Nevertheless, bringing in the key stakeholders for certain decisions can certainly save a lot of trouble down the road.”

Others agree.

“Sometimes [it’s] difficult to get direct access to the personnel who will ultimately use the systems,” says Per Persson, Williams Sound international sales manager. “This may on occasion result in the system being too complicated for the intended users’ level of expertise. It doesn’t matter how well designed a system is if the person using the system doesn’t understand how to operate it.”

AVMI project at Newcastle Moot HallEmerging opportunities

Digital signage is showing up in other parts of courthouses, too. One example is helping people navigate the physical and procedural aspects of those frequently large facilities – similar to how many hospitals and clinics are using signage to increase satisfaction.

“We know from evidence that the more people understand what’s going on in court, the more they can navigate their way around the courthouse, the more transparent the court systems are, the more fairly treated they’ll feel,” Whitehead says. “If they understand what happens, they’ll respect the law more and may obey it. So there’s a lot of work going on to look at how to improve signage in courthouses to make them easier to navigate.” 

One way to identify signage and other AV opportunities is to look where the offenders are. For example, telemedicine is increasingly common in prisons for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it’s because there’s a limited number of physicians, psychiatrists and others who serve that population, and it’s more efficient for them to conduct some visits virtually than trekking from prison to prison. 

In other cases, new approaches to certain types of offenses are driving the market. One example is drug courts, which are starting to appear in the UK. They’re more common in the US, so it’s worth looking at their use of AV to understand what their EMEA peers will need as they start to add them. The white paper at tinyurl.com/jbtzmbf is one place to start.

“Drug courts tend to be found in urban areas, where it’s for people to access a drug treatment provider,” Whitehead says. “But in more rural areas, they’re experimenting with having telehealth available inside courts. [That way when] people come to court to review their progress, the judge also can use that to access telehealth services from their substance abuse provider.” 

But not every legal AV application spans multiple countries. For example, some US jails and prisons use videoconferencing to eliminate the cost and risk of transporting some offenders to court. Those benefits should make it attractive to legal systems in other countries, too, but that’s not always the case.

“In the UK, the reason why it’s not used all that well is that sometimes the prisons want to get certain prisoners out of the building,” Turner says. “Once they go to court, they go with all of their belongings, and if that space is filled by someone else, they don’t get them back.”

Hear here

Two global trends influencing legal AV are immigration and aging populations. 

“We are seeing a considerable increase in the number of requests for equipment to handle both interpretation and assistive listening in court rooms in the US, Europe and increasingly in the Middle East,” Persson says. “With current immigration trends, there is a greater need and awareness of providing support for multiple languages in the legal arena.”

But need and awareness don’t always mean that the necessary funding is there, too.

“A continuing trend of stricter laws mandating assistive listening, and stronger enforcement of such laws in many countries, adds to the increasing demand for assistive listening systems,” Persson says. “Financial contributions for providing legally mandated equipment for interpretation and assistive listening varies widely between different countries and states/counties. There are even cases where the legal requirement to provide an assistive listening system is completely overlooked, which is a bit ironic in a legal environment.”

On the plus side, ensuring compliance doesn’t necessarily have to mean cutting a lot of other things to free up budget.

“The cost of providing equipment for interpretation and assistive listening is typically a relatively small fraction of the overall costs of AV,” Persson says.

Of course, assistive listening systems aren’t the only way to ensure that everyone can hear what’s going on. Equally important is the location of mics and loudspeakers. But getting them in the ideal spots isn’t always easy because courtrooms typically are filled with high-end finishes, such as hardwood panelling and marble. Those are expensive or impossible to run cable through and to treat acoustically. Some AV pros say this aspect doesn’t get the attention it should.  

“Acoustic issues are often overlooked, as the aesthetics of the courtroom environment takes precedence, resulting in reflective surfaces and little acoustic treatment,” Winkler says. “Related to this, older courtrooms often have nice woodwork that no one wants to tamper with to install audio system components. 

“Because of these things, mic placement becomes more critical. It is important to get the microphones close to the subjects. For the judge and the witness box, this is not usually a problem. But for plaintiffs and defendant tables, sometimes there are issues.”

Avoiding these issues also goes back to the advice about trying to get input from end users such as judges and attorneys. That feedback can also be shared with vendors to identify the product that has the right mix of features to meet those needs and wants. 

“If a technology such as induction loop is used, very careful attention must be paid to the design to mitigate the overspill to remove the risk of hearing aid users being able to listen from outside the room,” Persson says. “For infrared, an EASE design is recommended to ensure proper coverage of the room. 

How much does security matter?

Assistive listening and interpretation systems also are examples of applications where security and privacy sometimes are considerations. For example, they influence the choice of wireless technology – or whether it’s used at all.

“A technology such as infrared maintains privacy by the signal being contained within a room,” Persson says. “Another option is using systems that can provide encryption and PIN codes, such as digital wireless communication equipment – for example, Digi-Wave.” 

Other vendors also recommend encryption.

“If wireless mics are needed, then encryption should be taken seriously,” Winkler says. “We've seen a number of cases where hackers have cracked into databases or gathered information illicitly, and the results can be disastrous. Don't forget that criminals and other nefarious entities have the same technology we do. 

“With this in mind, choose an encryption system that is robust and meets high standards. For instance, AES-256 CTR encryption has not known to have been ever broken.”

But other AV pros say that maximising security and privacy – whether it’s for mics, videoconferencing or something else – isn’t as critical across the board as it might appear. For example, securing the system for presenting evidence is important to minimise tampering that could affect a case’s outcome. But it might not be necessary to encrypt the mics.

“The reality is a courtroom is a public place,” Turner says. “Once that information is said, it’s open for everyone’s access. So there’s no need to have a level of security [except for] when that data is being stored for the event.”