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Support dog trial for OPP witnesses

Support dog trial for OPP witnesses

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice Courts Criminal Procedure Evidence Justice 

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Coop, the witness support dog that featured in the December issue of the Law Institute Journal, has been taken on in a pilot program by the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP). The three-year-old black Labrador has been sitting in with sexual offences case witnesses as they give evidence at the remote witness facility at the Office.

Solicitor of Public Prosecutions John Cain says the OPP took on Coop on a trial basis to help make it easier for witnesses to give evidence, and also to improve court processes.

"We deal with witnesses who are often very traumatised, and they’re being asked to give evidence about very troubling events. They’re often highly emotional and highly stressed and we are aware the experience of giving evidence often re-traumatises them.

“Anything that we can do that makes that process a bit easier and reduces the risk of retraumatising people in the court process we’re happy to have a try.”

Coop is trained by K9 Support and has been providing support to dozens of victims of sexual assault in regional Victoria for the past eighteen months. Trainer Tessa Stow says the presence of the dog helps reduce anxiety and stress, so that victims are better able to give their evidence. Specialised training takes months, with the dogs needing to be able to withstand often highly emotive situations.

The OPP pilot is currently around halfway through its 8-10 week trial period, with Coop attending the remote witness facility at the Office one day a week. The judge is made aware that she is present but the dog is not visible to the court, sitting quietly at the feet of witnesses or sometimes with her head on their lap.

Early indicators at the OPP have been very positive says Mr Cain. "People are getting through their evidence a bit quicker, and needing less breaks because they’re not as stressed and anxious. That is good for the complainants because they’re not exposed to the evidence-giving process any longer than they have to be, but it also means the court case is over more quickly and that’s a good thing too.”

One complainant described Coop as a “lifesaver” and said having her nearby grounded her. Another said knowing the dog was present provided a distraction from the stress and worry of giving evidence. One complainant had refused to give testimony until she learned the dog would be present, Mr Cain said.

Given the success of the program so far, Mr Cain says he hopes to bring a support dog into the OPP on an ongoing basis. With Coop now in high demand, Ms Stow says the service is ready to expand, with another dog already in training and another litter of puppies ready to start.


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