Courthouse dogs

14/05/2018

In the April Gazette, Patricia Hynes writes about a new approach to help vulnerable witnesses.

Protecting vulnerable witnesses

Children and other vulnerable witnesses can often find the experience of court intimidating and stressful, especially when they are reliving trauma. In various jurisdictions, new approaches are being tested to provide emotional support.

In Britain, child victims of serious crimes are sometimes allowed to bring toys or pets into the witness box with them. And in the US, specially trained dogs are being introduced to accompany vulnerable witnesses as they testify.

Courthouse dogs

The Courthouse Dogs Foundation (and the development of its model in the US) was co-founded in 2008 by Ellen O’Neill-Stephens (a retired deputy prosecuting attorney) and Dr Celeste Walsen (a doctor of veterinary medicine, with a BA in psychology). The foundation envisions a world where a facility dog can be made available to every courthouse in order to provide emotional support to anyone in need during stressful legal proceedings.

Ellen’s son Seán and his service dog Jeeter were the inspiration for what was to become the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. She first started bringing Jeeter to juvenile court in King County, Seattle, in 2003 on a part-time and unofficial basis. She saw first-hand how the dog’s presence relaxed everyone in the courtroom. Word of how he lessened tensions spread throughout the prosecutor’s office.          

Impact in practice

One day, Ellen was approached by a deputy prosecutor who relayed to her the difficulties he was having prosecuting a father for sexual offences against his children. Jeeter ended up playing an important role in helping the victims to relay their story to the prosecutor, and in court.

Patricia Hynes is a practising solicitor with Fitzgerald Solicitors (Cork), and a member of the Law Society's Human Rights Committee. Writing in the April 2018 Gazette, she explores how emotional support animals can help the most vulnerable witnesses in the court system.

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