Legal Support Animals to be aloud in court

In a new initiative proposed by two junior researchers in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), litigants in person may soon be allowed to bring their pets into court to help them present their case. Legal Support Animals — or Mckenzie Pets as they have quickly become known — may even be given a right of audience.

Previously, although assistance dogs have routinely been allowed to accompany their owners in court, the use of emotional support animals in court has been much more exceptional. However, in a recent case reported in the Daily Telegraph, the judge allowed a nervous pensioner to bring his cat into the Crown Court where he was on trial for a stalking offence (the pensioner, not the cat).

However, the recent cuts in legal aid in civil and family law cases have led to a massive increase in litigants in person, who often struggle to present their case in court against professional barristers and solicitors. A Mckenzie Friend is not only allowed to appear in court to provide moral support and help the unrepresented litigant to organise and present their case, but with the judge’s leave they can sometimes even be allowed to made submissions.

Right of paw-dience

Following the HMCTS research, a pilot scheme will be launched in Walden County Court on 1 April (today). Unrepresented litigants wishing to take their animals into court will need to register in advance with the court listing office, stating why they think their animal will help them win their case. A subcommittee of Family Proceedings Rule Committee has been specially convened to draw up a Code of Practice. This will provide that in certain circumstances, subject to the discretion of the judge, a legal support animal (LSA) may be given a right of audience.

In anticipation of the pilot, a local pet shop has set up Man’s Best (McKenzie) Friends with the specific aim of providing, for sale or hire, LSAs trained to assist unrepresented litigants during their ‘day in court’. Its owner, Sam Churchill, is an enthusiastic supporter of the scheme.

“Many litigants feel crushed and tongue-tied by the experience of appearing in court in front of all those stuffy wigs and gowns, so having a loud bark or two to break the ice can make all the difference.

Moreover, growling at the other side’s witnesses, or making a hissing sound, can help remind them of their duty to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Called to the Bar[k]

His business was initially set up a decade ago, under the name Dumb Chums Bureau, as an agency for animal expert witnesses. It has flourished over the years, satisfying the demand for a canine, feline or in one case ovine witnesses to provide expert testimony, particularly in agricultural arbitration cases.

‘Nine times out of ten it’s dogs. In fact I’d say it was dogs ninety-nine times out of ten. Is that right? Yes, because frankly getting a cat to give evidence is an uphill struggle. But dogs are used to being given instructions and following them to the letter, or treat. Typically it will involve an issue around a scent, where there’s a dispute or uncertainty about its provenance, and the dog will usually be able to track it back to its source. It can take a while, of course, and they do get distracted in the woods and fields. Rabbits and stuff. But still, who would turn down an expert witness if they could have one? It could mean the difference between winning and losing your case.’

He admits the ovine case was unusual.

‘We actually called the sheep as a character witness, to vouch for the dog involved. So it was the dog that gave the expert testimony. But the other side had two dogs, you see, both experts in their field, and indeed the woods and towpaths. So we needed something by way of a counter-weight. The judge was very good about it. He even made a joke. He said, Mr Shepherd, is your witness today ewe or non-ewe? I suppose it’s funny, if you speak Latin or something. Any road the older counsel all fell about the place.’