Support animals can occasionally be used in court proceedings to calm a young witness

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UK – NEWS AND OPINION: It might interest some readers to know the current rules on allowing a support animal – usually a dog – to be in a British court room with the intention of supporting a young witness who might be a child. That’s the kind of situation where a support dog would be potentially very useful. Sometimes they can be provided by a local animal charity.

Currently, there appears to be no formal rules about allowing pets into the court room in the UK. The Daily Mail reports that in 2015 a 72-year-old woman defendant was allowed to take a black cat into the courtroom at Chelmsford County Court. This would appear to be very exceptional. And the practice was ended by a new presiding judge.

The story indicates that judges have some personal discretion as to whether they allow support animals into their court room.

The Criminal Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) is discussing whether it is feasible to allow witnesses, jurors and defendants to bring their support animals into court. The committee sets guidance for courts.

The current guidance from the committee, as I understand it, is that there is no current intention to provide formal guidelines allowing support animals in court. It would appear to be down to the discretion of the judge under exceptional circumstances.

The Daily Mail reports on a person “close to the committee” who said that it was “highly unlikely” that support animals would be routinely allowed into courts.

Apparently, a senior judge, a former President of the Family Division was well-known for bringing her dog into court. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander! It would have been hard for that judge to deny a support animal to a child who felt that they needed emotional support or was assessed as needing one by perhaps a court-appointed expert. Although it adds administrative complications to the proceedings which need to be streamlined.

I’m told that in America 16 states allow dogs to accompany victims and witnesses at court should it be deemed beneficial to them or necessary. And in Chile, Canada and America court “facility dogs” have been allowed in trials to support children, witnesses and victims.

I can see the benefit to particularly witnesses as it might allow them to provide evidence to the jury which they might otherwise feel incapable of. And certainly, for victims a support animal might be very useful. Criminal trials are very stressful for all non-legal parties particularly the victims in for example rape trials. Under these kinds of circumstances, I could see a great benefit in having a support animal close to her/him during the trial.

Cats would be more problematic than dogs for obvious reasons but they shouldn’t be precluded because there are some wonderful support and therapy cats working at hospices and care homes.

Although I can’t provide specifics, in the following countries, some jurisdictions within those countries allow support animals in court: United States, the UK as mentioned, Australia and Canada.

In Australia, for example, in Victoria, the Court Support Dog Program allows support dogs to accompany witnesses in court to reduce anxiety.

In Canada a decision is made on a case-by-case basis.

In America some states have guidelines allowing support animals in courts.

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