THE USE OF DOGS IN THE COURTROOM. On the 22nd February 2018, a guide was launched by the Victims’ Rights Alliance and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, to try and open up discussions about new and innovative ways to help protect victims from difficulties they may face in the courtroom, which may have long-term effects on the mental health of the aforementioned victim. Maria McDonald BL, a member of the Victims’ Right Alliance, cited the example of countries such as America, where specially trained dogs are allowed to enter the witness box alongside victims who are at risk of breaking down on the stand and are in need of emotional support.

The first case of dogs being used to help victims in America was in 2004. The case that was dealt with here involved was of sexual assault on two twins by their father. The prosecutor who was assigned to the case struggled to get a word out of the sisters, until a dog called Jeeter was brought in to help the girls talk to the prosecutor. Their nerves were immediately calmed and the girls were able to be interviewed. However, when the twins saw their father in court, they were back to square one and weren’t able to testify. Because of this, the judge gave permission for the girls to be able to take the dog into the witness box with them. This allowed the girls to give their testimonies, and for the case to proceed.

In March 2017, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement talking about how many studies have established that children experience anxiety in the run up to court appearences mainly because of the fear of facing the defendant, and that the more frightened a child is, the less he or she is able to answer questions. The statement also talked about how the use of facility dogs has been proven to reduce stress and increase comfort for the victim. This proves how beneficial the programme can be for children and other victims who are daunted by the prospect of speaking in court.

However, some people have challenged the addition of dogs in the courtroom because of fear of bias. Mr Timothy Dye appealed his burglary conviction on the grounds that because the victim was allowed to have a dog sit with her in court helped convince the jury that he was guilty. The appeals court then ruled unanimously that a bias was not created by the dog. The ruling came as no surprise, as a correctly trained facility dog is legally neutral, and the dogs are trained to quietly lie on the floor of the witness box and stay out of sight. As always, when a new aspect of the courtroom there are people who are against it, but the benefits of facility dogs far outweigh the drawbacks. The fact that there are 180 facility dogs working in courthouses across the USA, Canada and Chile is a testament of the plan’s success. The mere presence of a dog in the courtroom can help calm a person in the witness box immeasurably. While dogs are an integral part of Irish society in the roles of assistance and therapy dogs, courthouse dogs are absent, but because of the guide released by the Victims Right Alliance, this will hopefully change in the upcoming years.

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