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To Promote Justice, Courts Turn to Dogs

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 22, 2015 12:46 PM

The Tenth Circuit court of South Carolina just became one of the best courts in the nation. No, it's not because of its historic court houses, important decisions, or swift handling of justice. It's the dogs.

The state court's Solicitor's Office announced last week that it will join a growing list of courthouses that have added a canine to the court staff. The dog's main task will be comforting crime victims, but we'd like to think that a stressed lawyer could give Fido a pet or two as well. This is some legal innovation we can get behind.

Court Goes to the Dogs

South Carolina's assistance dog is one of a growing number of animals being used to calm and comfort individuals in court. There are 87 courthouse dogs working in 28 different states, according to Solicitor Chrissy Adams. They don't come cheap, however. South Carolina's dog was donated by Assistance Dogs International at a value of $50,000, according to the local Fox affiliate.

While dogs are a benefit in and of themselves, their main job in the courthouse is to help promote justice by calming and supporting courtroom participants, often victims of traumatic crime. There's strong evidence of dogs' calming effects, according to the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs. Plus:

Who could not love that?

What if I Don't Like Dogs?

Sure, dogs are great, but allergies and phobias are common. For certain clients and lawyers, a dog could be anything but comforting. We assume a simple objection would be enough to keep dogs out of the court in such cases.

Additionally, some lawyers may be concerned that the presence of a dog may change a court or jury's reaction to a witness. After all, who would question the testimony of someone with a back lab by their side? To avoid prejudicing reactions, some courts have made courthouse dogs "invisible" by keeping them next to traumatized witnesses but out of sight of the jury. A child abuse victim, for example, testified in a 2012 Washington state proceeding with a dog at her feet the whole time -- the jurors never knew the was there.

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