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Doggone good idea

23 September 2020

Zero, South Australia's inaugural canine court companion, is now a step closer to supporting vulnerable witnesses in court. 

While Zero has been providing support to vulnerable witnesses during meetings with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, to prepare for court, he hasn't yet been able to provide this help in the courtroom. 

Changes proposed to the Evidence Act that will allow canine court companions to accompany vulnerable witnesses while they are giving evidence in South Australia's courts will be introduced into State Parliament today. 

"Zero has helped more than 100 vulnerable victims or witnesses and the feedback about the comfort and support he has provided has been overwhelmingly positive since we began this project in 2018," said Attorney-General Vickie Chapman. 

"Zero has been expertly trained to be calm and quiet, providing emotional support to victims or witnesses of crime in subtle, gentle ways such as by sitting at their feet, leaning into them or looking at them, particularly when he picks up on their distress.

"Children have shown less anxiety and emotional distress during the meetings, which can be upsetting and overwhelming for some at times. 

"Zero has exceeded at all that has been asked of him, and we are now at the stage where we can consider what support he can provide in the courtroom.

"This initiative of Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and Guide Dogs SA/NT highlights that we need to keep looking for improvements in the operation of our legal system."

One parent of a vulnerable witness has told the ODPP how Zero's calming influence changed her daughter's level of anxiety in her preparation for trial. 

"The first time we went in for the meeting we did not have the privilege of having Zero for assistance and my daughter had anxiety the night before, rough sleeps and (was) not eating," she said.

"To see, feel and note the massive difference was huge. She wasn't sick, her appetite was normal, she slept normal and went home chirpy, talking about Zero to her friends and siblings.

"I cannot thank you enough for allowing her the opportunity to have the few hours with Zero - I believe the second visit with Zero made her more relaxed and confident to approach the next step, the trial itself."

The proposed legislative changes will allow canine court companions to accompany witnesses while they give their evidence in serious criminal prosecutions. 

If passed, it's expected that Zero will be introduced to court gradually, initially providing comfort in waiting areas, and in the witness box or vulnerable witness suites in following months. 

The canine court companion's attendance will be subject to the approval of a judicial officer. 

Where possible the canine court companion will not be visible in any audio visual record of the evidence or to a jury, to minimise any potential for prejudicial impact. 

The bill also seeks to minimise the risk of vulnerable witnesses having to give evidence both at pre-trial special hearings and at trial, through clearer provisions regarding the admission of pre-recorded evidence. 

"Both these measures seek to minimise the trauma that children, people with disabilities and other vulnerable witnesses can sometimes face, when having to re-live their experiences through the criminal justice system process."

The Canine Court Companion project is an initiative of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, in partnership with Guide Dogs SA/NT. 

Protecting the community, including vulnerable people, is a key component of the Marshall Liberal Government's Justice Agenda.