Doggone good idea

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 courtwill 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 the 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 friend and siblings.