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. Whats a dog doing in a court? he asks, touching Bushy gently on his head. Thats 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. Its 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 theyre going to live.
In the US, they bring llamas and alpacas into care homes but Im 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 schemes impact. I dont think anybody could say if theres 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 dont want to do that: I dont want to make it all scientific. Its working for us and it doesnt cost the courts a penny.
No ones pretending its 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.