Bringing together the victims of crime and those who have harmed them has been shown to reduce re-offending and bring relief to the sufferers, but Lizzie Nelson says the the UK still lags behind best international practice
Victims of a crime in the UK wanting to meet the man or woman who has caused them grief face an uphill struggle.
“They can be heavily discouraged and it can take an awfully long time before they get to meet,” explains Lizzie Nelson, director of the Restorative Justice Council whose main activity is victim-offender mediation. “The adult justice system generally keeps victims and perpetrators strictly apart. It has no restorative justice element to it.”
Victim-offender meetings take place as a matter of course in other countries – Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, to name just three. However, they remain a rare element in the UK’s criminal justice system and there is no nationally determined framework for organising such meetings. Victims of crime are believed to have played their part once the guilty party is sentenced in court.
The Restorative Justice Council, established in 2003, aims to change this. Among its 150 member organisations are police forces, local authority mediation services and prisons who believe there can be great benefits for both parties when criminals face their victims.
The introduction of various elements of restorative justice has been under government scrutiny for more than a decade. At the start of the millennium, the Ministry of Justice of the then Labour administration introduced and funded a seven-year research programme looking into the efficacy of restorative justice schemes.
Now Justice Secretary of State, Ken Clarke, in charge of the same ministry in the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, has set in train similar studies. There is growing public interest in what restorative justice schemes have achieved in other countries, and in such experience as there has been so far in the UK.
A meeting between the two “sides” of a crime, victim and offender, can take place months or years after the trial is over. Such a meeting allows the victim of a crime, or the close relatives in, for example, cases of murder, to talk to the person who may have so dramatically impacted on their lives.
But there are many who question its value. Such schemes have to be voluntary on both sides, so why would a criminal agree to such a process? What do criminals get in return if they do agree to a meeting? And would it be a just outcome if they were “rewarded”?
“If it’s a minor offence, it can have an effect on their sentence,” Nelson acknowledges. “But for serious crimes, restorative justice only happens post-sentence. It doesn’t happen pre-sentence at all.”
In the case of some minor offences, such a meeting may replace a custodial sentence. But for serious crimes it could never replace prison. For very serious offences such as rape and murder such meetings may be vetoed anyway due to the strength of emotions involved.
“It’s a process, not just a meeting,” says Nelson of the kind of mediation the Restorative Justice Council and its member organisations attempt to facilitate. “Meetings between victims and perpetrators of crimes all require a risk assessment first.”
“The criminal may not even be admitting their crime, and the victim may just want revenge. That would be a meeting you simply wouldn’t want to happen. So the preparation is important – and a risk assessment is a vital first step.”
“It’s about managing expectations on both sides – so when it comes to meeting neither the criminal or the victim go into that room with unrealistic expectations,” she says.
Currently, Nelson explains, once a court has confirmed an offender guilty, a victim of crime has no official role to play at all. This is the stage at which the Restorative Justice Council may receive a call from a victim, their family, friends or representatives. They will then try to connect them to a variety of local organisations able to offer help.
Often, the authorities need to be persuaded to allow a meeting to take place. There may be concern that such a meeting would damage either or both the victim and the offender. More and more, though, it is beginning to be understood that a victim’s persistence may be driven by the need to seek some form of closure.
However keen a victim may be to meet an offender after the trial, a meeting can only take place when both parties agree. Often the offender will say no. But if they do agree, extensive preparations must take place for both parties separately before they meet, including for example, enabling the victim to visit the secure facility where they will eventually have contact and seeing the room where they will meet face to face.
The meeting itself took place in 2011, five years after the actual rape. Nodding “wanted to be free of that burden of grievance” that she had carried ever since the attack. Their meeting took place over the course of an hour and a half.
“As I left that room I felt on top of the world,” she said afterwards. “Meeting him gave me closure, because I had said everything I had wanted to say and I had taken back some kind of control over my life.”
She believed that the meeting also made an impact on her attacker.
The affect on offenders and their likelihood of re-offending formed part of the seven-year study set up by Labour. The Government-funded research programme, evaluated by Professor Joanna Shapland, found a 27% reduction in offences where restorative justice measures had been used. In 2010 the government undertook its own analysis of the data in the Shapland report, and quantified the reduction in frequency of re-offending following restorative justice as 14%, a lower but still significant impact. Such a reduction in re-offending nationwide would amount to a substantial public benefit and strong justification for pursuing such programmes.
But there is also huge reported value to the victims and an imbalance in the legal system that needs addressing, “victims are either treated really badly in court or are there only as witnesses. Restorative justice recognises them and gives them a voice,” explains Lizzie Nelson.
“In a prison setting, if you have a legal requirement for every prisoner to have a shower, make a phone call, have food and so on, that is what you are going to focus on. So until the legislation comes in to make restorative justice part of what is required, it is simply not able to happen.”
“It’s remarkable how many victims talk about getting a sense of closure and moving on after these meetings,” says Nelson. “And restorative justice does also have a definite impact on reoffending – and that’s helped raise its profile.”
Though the British Ministry of Justice has funded projects, it provides no core funding to restorative justice organisations. The RJC is not a government-funded department or “official” organisation; it is a charity, and needs continually to raise funds.
“There’s a massive gap in the adult criminal justice system. There’s no legislative system in place for this, no statutory system at all. We’re really looking forward to this changing in coming years.”
In the Queen’s speech laying out legislative plans for the next 12 months, the Government unveiled its intention, through the Ministry of Justice, to protect free speech, make the security services more accountable, and make the justice system more accessible.
As yet, there is no specific word on restorative justice. But in continuing recession, a restorative justice process that meets the needs of victims and reduces re-offending is surely a policy whose time has come.