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Unmasking the issues with face masks

August 20, 2020

As courts reopen physical courthouses mandatory mask policies are common. According to the Center for Disease Control, a properly fitted face mask should cover from over the nose to under the chin and fit snugly on the sides of the wearer’s face. A necessity to keep both court personnel and the public safe, masks do present challenges.

Masks conceal nonverbal visual cues. According to experts, anxiety, disgust, or understanding are often expressed through a twitch of the mouth or a pinch of the lips, gestures that are lost behind masks.  For judges and court security, trained to watch facial expression for emotional states, this means finding a new way to watch for these emotions. Attorneys are also raising concern over not being able to smile to put clients and witnesses at ease, noting court can be a scary experience.

More troubling than missed nonverbal cues is the potential loss of communication. For the deaf and hard of hearing, lip reading is essential for communication. The Council of Language Access Coordinators’ Remote Interpreting Guide for Courts, Court Staff, and Justice Partners states that facial expressions, lip movements and body language are an important part of the translation process. These gestures are so important they are included in court interpreter guidelines. Even where hearing is not impaired, lip reading and visual cues are used to distinguish between like sounding words.

Hi-tech face masks are on the way and can record conversations, transcribe voice to text, and even translate languages. Imagine a mask with functionality similar to a cell phone. While cell phones still present challenges for use in the court room, acceptance is growing and COVID-19 forced the courts to rethink their relationship with technology. A low-tech solution is face shields or transparent masks. While the CDC warns that the effectiveness of face shields in preventing the spread of the virus is currently unknown, they state where lip reading is needed to communicate a clear face covering should be used. If a face shield is used, the shield should wrap around the side of the face and extend below the chin.

For more resources on navigating the novel coronavirus visit the NCSC Pandemic Resource Center, or read up on CCJ/COSCA’s resolution on cell phones in the courthouse.

How has your court adapting to masks in the courthouse? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences.

For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.