A government minister, Jeremy Wright, recently raised hopes of a
new approach to criminal justice for England and Wales based on
Disappointingly, it is being introduced half-heartedly. The
Opposition is attacking it for the wrong reasons; the voluntary
sector seems to have no clear strategy for making it happen; and it
could fall into the lap of profit-oriented companies. But
faith-based groups could fill the gap, and help to transform the
Restorative justice is based not on "returning evil for evil"
but on healing the harm, and, where possible, enabling the victim
to tell the offender the effects of the crime on him or her, and to
ask questions. This can be an eye-opener to the offender. Unlike
the adversarial nature of a criminal trial, this process encourages
empathy on both sides, although, of course, it doesn't guarantee
Restorative justice works better in more serious cases,
including violence, where there are more emotions needing a
response; but the Government's 15 experimental
neighbourhood-justice panels, which have no central funding, are
focused on relatively minor anti-social behaviour, some of which
may not even be criminal.
Opportunities are being missed. The Crime and Courts Act 2013
allows prosecution to be deferred to allow for compensation,
donation to a charity, or disgorging profits from the offence. But
it applies only to corporate offenders such as firms, not to
individuals; and there is no opportunity for victims to meet the
directors in person (rather than underlings or lawyers), to tell
them, face to face, the human effects of their mis-selling of
insurance or pharmaceuticals, or their pollution of the
The Act also allows sentencing to be deferred to give an
opportunity for restorative justice. But prosecutors, probation
officers, and courts cannot refer cases to restorative justice if
no service is available locally to provide it.
WHERE restorative justice has been introduced, for example in
the Thames Valley, it is working well. So it is disappointing to
see it criticised for the wrong reasons. In April, Yvette Cooper,
the Shadow Home Secretary, complained about the number of cases
being dealt with by community resolution.
It is odd to see saving police time and paperwork presented as
somehow dubious. Police used to have to choose between charging
someone (possibly leading to a "crime cleared up", but saddling the
person with a conviction), or recording an unsolved crime (bad for
statistics), or taking no further action. Now "restorative
disposals" can count as positive outcomes, which are good for
community cohesion, besides saving police and court time on minor
Prosecution is not necessarily the best response to wrongdoing.
Even crimes labelled "violent" do not all cause serious injury.
They often involve former friends, neighbours, or colleagues, and
mediation can help get them back on speaking terms. Indeed, applied
at an earlier stage, it might have prevented the violent
After crimes by a stranger, victims commonly want to know "Why
me?' Hate crimes (attacking people merely because they are black,
gay, disabled, foreign, or otherwise different) arise from
ignorance and stereotyping, and a restorative process is better
suited to overcoming these than conviction and punishment.
Criticism is often based on misconceptions, such as a Daily
Telegraph headline: "Violent offenders avoid courts with soft
on the street justice" (30 April).
Restorative justice is not concerned only with offenders but
also with victims, who consistently give it high satisfaction
ratings. It doesn't aim at controlling crime by fear of judicially
ordered pain, but by the pain of recognising the harm caused to
If an offender agrees to make reparation, for example by
community work, the community will have to provide suitable and
properly supervised tasks - not degrading ones, but activities by
which he or she can gain self-esteem and the approval of the
One victim of street robbery asked that her attacker do
something to make him realise that others were less fortunate than
him; a placement was found at a project where disabled children
learnt to ride.
Other offenders cleared junk from a river in south London;
although the work was hard and cold, it was not chosen for that
reason, but because they could feel a sense of achievement.
What many victims want most is that offenders should not "do it
again"; many offenders need skills (including literacy), anger
management, addiction therapy, and so on, and these have to be
available to them, together with the basics such as accommodation
USING restorative justice for domestic violence is more complex;
it certainly needs handling with caution. But the UK is lagging
behind several Continental countries that use it widely, notably
Austria, where a study in 2010 by Dr Christa Pelikan found that 83
per cent of the women who responded lived free of violence after
the mediation experience.
Of these, 80 per cent said that restorative justice had
contributed to this result, mostly by making them feel stronger and
more assured about their rights; and 40 per cent stated that their
partner had changed as a result of going through mediation.
In a typical case, where the man had abused his partner verbally
and physically, the restorative process made her feel empowered to
take control of the situation. He agreed to attend a
behaviour-change programme, and found that he was pleased with his
In another instance, the meeting strengthened the woman's
determination to leave her abusive partner; but they were able to
agree on separation, and on custody of the children. Dr Pelikan
states that it is simplistic to claim a "success" rate of 83 per
cent; restorative justice is not a cure-all, but needs the support
of other measures.
THE big question is who will make it happen? The probation
service, now being severely cut, is unlikely to have the time.
Freelance facilitators cannot guarantee continuity, and have no
structure for support and supervision. The commercial sector
operates to values that have little in common with restorative
In the age of the Big Society, conflict resolution and
restorative justice could be provided by local mediation services
in each locality, overseen by a national NGO. Many cases can be
handled by trained lay mediators (as in Norway, Finland, and the
Netherlands, and in some places in the UK), others by staff. If the
Government is serious about restorative justice, there should be a
mechanism for funding it from the resulting savings in other parts
of the system (a new adaptation of payment by results).
We need a strategy to spread better understanding of restorative
justice, and the impetus to put it into effect. About 30 years ago,
many local groups were formed to spread victim support. With
guidance from a national body, such as the Restorative Justice
Council, could local faith groups and others do the same thing,
taking up the challenge by helping to set up mediation services
Martin Wright was formerly director of the Howard League for
Penal Reform, and is a founder member of the Restorative Justice