Unique in the UK, Chelmsford county court hosts therapy dogs each week, to reduce stress and make court less intimidating
David is waiting to find out if his children are going to be taken away from him. He paces the court waiting room and appears to be nearing the end of his tether.
Other people instinctively give him a wide berth.
But Tina Jullings from Canine Concern approaches David with a small dog. “Would you like to stroke Bushy?” she asks brightly, offering up the chaotically hairy yorkshire terrier-chihuahua mix. He pauses, smiles, then laughs. “What’s a dog doing in a court?” he asks, touching Bushy gently on his head. “That’s crazy.”
It was January when Judge Lynn Roberts, the designated family judge for Essex and Suffolk, decided to brings dogs into Chelmsford county court. Volunteers from Pets as Therapy and Canine Concern, who usually take their therapy dogs into care homes and special schools, agreed to bring their pets into the court building to visit everyone from the judges and staff to the court users and their families. Roberts also arranges bespoke visits by the dogs if a child will be at court on a day when the animals are not due to visit.
Chelmsford is the only court in the country to welcome therapy dogs, but six months into the scheme, Roberts regards it as such a success that she is planning to introduce it to Ipswich county and family court.
“For many people, coming to court is the most stressful experience in their lives,” says Roberts, stroking the sleek head of Ella, a black, flat-haired retriever, who is visiting the judge in her retiring room before the official day begins. “It’s easy for us who work in the system to lose touch with how stressful it is but litigants are here because the future of their children is being determined, or their marriage, or where they’re going to live.
“In the US, they bring llamas and alpacas into care homes but I’m not going to attempt to bring in anything larger than a dog.” She pauses and gazes at Ella, who stares back with total canine devotion: “Having said that, I would love to bring in a donkey. I love donkeys too. But no, I think I will stop at dogs.”
So-called “courthouse facility dogs” are common in America, Canada and Chile, where they help children in all legal settings, as well as crime victims and witnesses, and those appearing in front of the drug and mental health courts.
But Roberts admits there is no tangible evidence as to the scheme’s impact. “I don’t think anybody could say if there’s any concrete result,” she said. “There was a suggestion from Cafcass [the body which represents children in family court cases] that we should assess the scheme but I don’t want to do that: I don’t want to make it all scientific. It’s working for us and it doesn’t cost the courts a penny.
“No one’s pretending it’s a cure-all,” she adds, reluctantly waving Ella goodbye and turning back to her case preparations. “It just releases a bit of stress and tension.”
The dogs have a schedule to keep to at Chelmsford: first they visit the judges, then the court staff and then the court users in the waiting rooms.
The circuit judge David Vavrecka is a fan of the scheme: “My initial, immediate reaction was that it was a fantastic idea,” he said. “A dog will not change the outcome of a court case but in a very bleak and conflicted situation, it can make the experience less intimidating and more human. And if, only in a very small way, we can improve the experience for our litigants, that seems to be very important.”
The circuit judge Catriona Murfitt agreed: “All the 101 things whirling around in my brain, about the cases I’m going to hear that day, stop whirring for those five minutes when the dogs come round,” she said. “But it’s probably most helpful for litigants in person, who come to court with no lawyers and are often entirely alone, knowing very little about what’s going to happen in the courtroom.”
Stephen Hodges, another district judge, is, however, less enthusiastic. “I just about tolerate the interruption to my morning when the dogs come round,” he said. “But I have two concerns. One is that certain cultures don’t traditionally feel the same way about dogs as British people tend to feel, and it could be quite off-putting for them to be approached by a dog at a moment of great stress.
“The other is that serious business happens in court. When the dogs visit the judges – between 9am and 10am – we’re doing very serious preparation for the cases we’re hearing that day. I personally find it an unwelcome distraction and I suspect the litigants feel the same if they’re talking to their representatives.”
An hour later, however, when Ella trots into his courtroom as he sits surrounded by paperwork, even Hodges appears won over by her canine charm. “Hello,” he croons quietly, tickling her under the ear. “You go all dreamy when I do this, don’t you?”
His concern that some litigants will find the dogs offensive or intrusive is countered by Kate Miller, a family law barrister at Chelmsford: “I have heard judges and lawyers voice concern that litigants who are facing the potential for losing their children don’t want to pat a dog or that certain cultures won’t appreciate it,” she said. “But I have myself observed the contrary: lots of people do want to pat a dog, and often exactly at moments of their greatest stress.”
In the court waiting room, the dogs are welcomed by some but waved away by others.
Angela has been waiting for two and a half hours to hear whether she will be able to keep her children. Visibly shaking and teary, she bends over Bushy and hugs him tightly.
“My little boy loves dogs,” she murmurs. “Bringing dogs in is such a good idea. It distracts me: I can push what’s happening to me to the back of my mind, just for a second.”
The names of people in court have been changed.