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Healing or opening emotional wounds -should restorative justice be used for domestic abuse?

Penelope Gibbs
17 Aug 2018

There are many strongly held views about what should and shouldn’t be done in cases of domestic abuse. Campaigners supporting domestic abuse victims have long campaigned against some uses of restorative justice (‘a process whereby all parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future’):

Refuge strongly opposes restorative justice in cases of intimate partner violence for the following central reasons:
 Intimate partner violence is systematic, patterned behaviour on the part of the abuser designed to control their partner – in these cases, there is an inherent power imbalance
 Any ‘restorative’ meetings between the perpetrator and the survivor could provide further opportunity for abuse and re-traumatisation
 There are intractable problems in using restorative justice programmes at any point during the criminal justice process”

But there is some positive international evidence for the success of restorative justice for domestic abuse. “Coker examined twenty cases of intimate partner violence and revealed a number of benefits for the women taking part including community support both to challenge the abuser’s conduct and to maintain familial ties (Coker 1999). She did, however, find a sense of coercion among some women and expressed concern that a focus on offender rehabilitation may detract from the women’s interests and needs”. This is one of the most negative findings. Overall, restorative justice which involves facilitated meetings or conferences seems to have potential to resolve conflict, particularly where the abuse is within the family, such as fights between siblings, or a boy regularly hitting his mother.

The official policy of both the Restorative Justice Council and the police is that restorative justice should not be used to resolve domestic abuse incidents “on the street”, but can be used if organised by a trained facilitator around a meeting at which the victim and perpetrator discuss the incident/s and the perpetrator commits to make amends. But policy and guidance seem to be roundly ignored on the ground. Academics Westmarland, McGlynn and Humphreys have found that every police force in England and Wales is using “community resolutions” (on the street justice which is sometimes deemed restorative) for domestic abuse, some very extensively: “over 5,000 domestic abuse cases in 2014 used out of court resolutions, and that as many as one in forty incidents and one in twenty offences (crimed incidents) were responded to in these ways”. Very serious crimes, which attract lengthy prison sentences in court, were being dealt with this way including malicious wounding (up to five years), threats to kill (up to ten years) and arson endangering life (with a maximum of life imprisonment).

The researchers found when they looked at one particular police force that there were many instances where restorative justice was being used inappropriately eg the case of  Tom and Sophie, a couple in their early 30s:

After an argument with Sophie, Tom (who was a previous known domestic abuse offender) smashed the glass panel in the front door leaving glass and blood on the floor. Tom was known to police for previous non-domestic assault as well as the previous domestic abuse. Sophie was pregnant and told the police that she feared Tom. Police arrested Tom for criminal damage. The case outcome was an adult simple caution and adult restorative approach. No senior level authorization for the restorative approach to take place was logged. Tom admitted guilt and agreed to pay Sophie for the damage. The restorative approach was recorded in the police officer’s pocketbook. Tom was warned to stay away from Sophie’s house.

This case is contrary to all guidance, given that the abuser had a history of abusing, the victim was pregnant and nothing was done to ensure that the abuser did not come back to the house.

So the police are using restorative justice, or what they think is restorative justice, under the radar. This creates its own problems. Because it’s under the radar, the practice is getting too little scrutiny and mistakes are being made. The mistakes are discrediting the use of genuine, well organised restorative justice for domestic abuse.

I’m not sure a blanket policy of saying restorative justice should never be used “on the street” is helpful or necessary. The alternative is too often “no further action” by the police, which does nothing to reduce abuse. On the street restorative justice may have potential to do some good, if police training is improved, bad practice is challenged and good practice identified and disseminated. So the answer is surely to stop turning a blind eye, find out more and have a debate about its uses and abuses.