With the help of an adorable four-legged hire, young victims and witnesses attending the Western Australian Children’s Court can find some canine comfort with five-year-old Labrador Winston as part of a 12-month program.
Winston, who has been trained by Guide Dogs WA, will interact gently and calmly with the young victims, witnesses and other court users to reduce the common stress and anxiety that comes with being in a courthouse environment. As part of the year-long program, he and his handler will be available for up to three days a week.
Department of Justice Director-General Dr Adam Tomison said facility dogs used in a range of legal settings internationally and in other Australian jurisdictions have been highly successful in reducing anxiety. It is his hope that should this program be successful, Winston and other companions can assist in other Western Australian courthouses.
“Reducing stress for victims, witnesses and other court users provides the dual benefit of making the justice system more trauma-sensitive for vulnerable people and increases engagement with court processes, which improves efficiency,” he said.
The pilot program, which costs $97,000 to run for the 12 months, is being run by the Office of the Commissioner for Victims of Crime. Commissioner Kati Kraszlan said research showed that the psychological effects of stress and anxiety can significantly impact a person’s memory, ability to concentrate and communicate.
“We have launched this pilot program based on strong evidence that interacting with a trained facility dog has positive effects on a person’s wellbeing. In the presence of a calm, relaxed dog, people experience psychological changes which combat the effects of courtroom-induced stress,” Ms Kraszlan commented.
Guide Dogs WA selected Winston for his new courthouse role based on his abilities and also because of his personality. The adorable canine has a reputation as a happy dog, characterised by the fact that his tail is constantly wagging. His handler also has a professional background in child protection at the court.
Winston and his handler will operate in the public waiting areas of the courthouse or private witness waiting area, and will not enter the courtrooms or remote witness facilities while a matter is in session. If a person is anxious, Winston can provide comforting body pressure by placing his head on their lap or lying on their feet.
The handler and dog will never approach anyone directly without their consent. Public signage has also been put up to inform court users of the dog’s presence each day and advise them to inform staff if they wish to steer clear of Winston.
Children’s Court president his honour Judge Hylton Quail said he is very supportive of the Justice Facility Dog Pilot program being held at the courthouse.
“Young people involved in the criminal justice system are particularly vulnerable as many of them have experienced disadvantage and trauma.”