Court Cases & Orders

Do “Comfort Animals” Belong in Canadian Courtrooms?

Written by Russell Alexander ria@russellalexander.com / (905) 655-6335

Do “Comfort Animals” Belong in Canadian Courtrooms?

Although it is too soon to tell what will happen in Canada, the Pennsylvania courts are tackling an unconventional question:  Whether “comfort animals” such as dogs should be allowed to support victims or witnesses in the court process who may be fearful or nervous when giving evidence.

The issue arose in the context of a 2016 criminal trial before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a case called Commonwealth v. Sheron Jalen Purnell.   The accused was involved in a fatal shooting and assault that had been witnessed by an autistic minor.  At the accused’s subsequent trial on various criminal charges, the minor witness was allowed to have a comfort dog with her while testifying.  The trial proceeded despite the accused objections about the unconventional accommodation.

The dog – a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix – was provided by K-9 unit of the County Sheriff’s department, and it had two years of training with the local Seeing Eye organization. Court documents show that the use of the dog was relatively unobtrusive: The animal was led into the courtroom before the jury arrived, and was led out only after all the jurors were excused.  The dog remained at the witness stand the whole time the minor witness gave her testimony to the court and jury members.

The accused was ultimately found guilty of third-degree murder and of illegally carrying firearms and was sentenced to between 20.5 and 47 years in prison.  As one of his grounds for appeal, he complained that the presence of the comfort dog was prejudicial to him.  It was wrong to allow the dog in the courtroom, he said, since it garnered sympathy with the jury and skewed them toward the prosecutor’s case.  Plus, the prosecutors failed to establish that the dog was necessary in the circumstances.

Judges have the general power to control the proceedings in their own courtrooms, which in the right scenarios could encompass the use of comfort animals. – Michelle Mulchan, Associate Lawyer

On appeal, the court once again rejected the accused’s argument that he suffered prejudice, noting he had failed to demonstrate that he suffered any harm due to the trial judge’s ruling to allow the minor witness to testify with the dog nearby.  The court added that while there was no precedent on this point, Pennsylvania judges had the general power to control the proceedings in their own courtrooms, which in the right scenarios could encompass the use of comfort animals.

In the time since that criminal conviction, the issue has developed a life of its own: In an upcoming hearing, Pennsylvania’s high court will be considering the tailored submissions of lawyers on both sides, to determine whether trial courts do indeed have the authority to craft this kind of accommodation in those rare cases where a vulnerable witness or victim may need such canine support.  The prosecutor’s argument will hinge on the fundamental need to achieve justice, the presumption being that in some cases comfort animals can quell the fears of such parties, and facilitate their ability to testify.

The pending ruling will not only give Pennsylvania courts the chance to set formal guidelines for future courtrooms, it will also revisit the correctness of the earlier ruling on whether their use in the accused’s specific trial was sufficiently prejudicial to require a new criminal hearing altogether.

Although we’ve certainly heard U.S. stories of nervous airline passengers taking comfort animals with them on flights, their proposed use in America’s courtrooms appears to be something new. No doubt we will be seeing more of it in Canada as well.

What are your thoughts?  Should comfort animals be allowed in the courtroom?

For the full text of the underlying criminal case that sparked this unique issue, see:

https://casetext.com/case/commonwealth-v-purnell-8

https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Commonwealth-v.-Purnell.pdf

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the founder of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers and is the firm’s senior partner. At Russell Alexander, our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues, including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders. We have locations in Toronto, Markham, Whitby (Brooklin), Oshawa, Concord, Lindsay, and Peterborough.

For more information, visit our website, or you can call us at: 905-655-6335.