Paw and order: Lucy the labrador provides support as Australia’s first full-time court dog

court dog
Maggie Davies

In Melbourne’s family court, Lucy visits hearings, legal interviews and mediations – all to relieve people’s stress as they navigate the justice system.

The Guardian reports that when Lucy enters a courtroom at the federal circuit and family court in Melbourne, she bows to the judge – as is customary.

Only Lucy is no ordinary court attender. She is a five-year-old chocolate labrador deployed as a “court facility dog” as part of a pilot program to provide support for people in court.

Lucy, who is Instagram-famous through her handle @courtdoglucy, is the first accredited court dog working full-time in Australia. She belongs to the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions and for the next three months is on loan to the family court one day a week.

“The court is mindful that litigation experiences can be stressful, especially for families,” said a judge, Amanda Mansini. “The court dog initiative is aimed at providing support and comfort to those that need it at various stages of the court process.”

The use of court dogs is not novel. The US justice system has been using them for almost a decade, with more than 300 court dogs in action.

In New Zealand, Tauranga district court piloted a court dog named Louie who became a national celebrity. Successive justice ministers visited Louie to have their photo taken with him – the justice ministry even issued a statement of condolence after Louie died.

His successor, Mabel, last month won the silver medal in New Zealand’s “top dog” competition.

“These (overseas) experiences tell us that a court dog is especially helpful to vulnerable people, such as children, victims of domestic violence, and also those of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds,” Mansini said. “It really seems to be a developing trend in the justice system.”

There is scientific research showing the positive physiological and psychological effects of dogs for humans, including in the legal context. “The science tells us that the mere presence of a dog that is specially trained for the justice environment reduces cortisol levels and anxiety,” Mansini said.

Lucy is trained to be calm and supportive in any stage of a legal matter, for children and adults. She is being deployed in court hearings, while witnesses give evidence, as well as during legal interviews, mediations and more. The court has been notifying parties and practitioners of Lucy’s scheduled attendance, so people who may be afraid of dogs, have allergies or cultural concerns can opt out.

Although Lucy is still new to the family court in Melbourne, the early feedback has been good. “The reaction of the whole court has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mansini said.

The pilot will run until February. If feedback from staff and court attenders remains positive, the family court will consider making the program permanent – although they’ll need to find another court dog, as Lucy will be returning to the Office of Public Prosecutions.

Mansini, who is a former Fair Work Commission deputy president appointed to the circuit and family court this year, is a big fan.

“Lucy is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “She has a range of tricks, but one of the most endearing tricks in the courtroom environment is that she’s been taught how to bow – which is really sweet.”

(Story source: The Guardian)

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