Dr Elizabeth Spruin explains how the American practice of using court facility dogs can alleviate stress for victims in court and offer them support.

In the realm of the Criminal Justice System, investigating and prosecuting crimes often depends on the testimony of witnesses and victims. However, testifying in court can be an unsettling and even terrifying ordeal, with legal professionals (e.g., the judge, clerks and barristers), dressed with authority, and the accused, only a few feet away. This is particularly pertinent for victims of domestic violence. It is therefore important that the needs of these individuals be put first at each stage of the criminal justice process, as they deserve the best possible support to help them cope with what they have been through.

Recent Government initiatives have further emphasised the need to improve the support offered to domestic violence victims’. With the Ministry of Justice announcing in December 2017 that more support will be provided to victims of domestic violence in court. The announcement represents the latest step to protect and support these victims.

Earlier this year the Home Secretary announced a £17 million fund to tackle violence against women and girls, with particular importance being placed on providing support to the most vulnerable victims. The government has also stated how they are committed to bringing forward a landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which will ensure that no stone is left unturned in protecting and supporting victims and children. From this perspective, the research community has an important role to play in regard to gathering sound scientific evidence to help improve the provisions available to these victims.

One particular avenue of support that has been successfully introduced in a number of legal settings across North America, is the use of court facility dogs. These dogs are a type of assistance dog that has been purposefully bred and professionally trained to provide support and alleviate stress for victims during court proceedings.

Although the research in the area is still growing, evidence has shown that court facility dogs provide a calming presence for victims, so that they can testify and reduce apprehension or fear of the court process, especially when testifying against an alleged abuser, as well as assist in the healing process.

The government said it themselves, ‘no stone should be left unturned’, in our effort to protect and support victims of domestic violence. In other words, it is imperative that every possible effort is made, every viable strategy be explored and every potential resource be utilised. What better resource to turn to than ‘Man’s best friend’?

 

Dr Elizabeth Spruin is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology.