The Need for Standards in Restorative Justice
25th February 2021

Dr. Kieran O’Dwyer

Independent Trainer and Facilitator

Core Member, RJS4C Ireland

Few would dispute that standards are required to ensure consistent quality of practice in restorative justice in Ireland. And few would suggest that those already providing services operate without regard to standards. But with current and anticipated growth in restorative justice in criminal justice as well as other domains (including education, community, and workplace), it is opportune to review the nature and scope of standards and quality assurance mechanisms. 

Quality has to be viewed primarily from the perspective of the recipients of a service. In restorative practice, quality is about safety and consistency, adherence to restorative principles and values, and achievement of fair outcomes. Commitment to standards, provision of guidance for good practice, and verification of achievement of standards provide reassurance to various stakeholders. Explicit standards can provide confidence to participants in restorative processes and to the wider public, guide practitioners, provide a framework for monitoring and evaluating performance, and reassure funders and oversight bodies.

Quality standards and guidance for good practice are well-developed for restorative justice in the criminal justice arena, not least because of the need to protect the rights and ensure the safety of participants. Recommendations by international bodies such as the United Nations, Council of Europe and European Union have been influential. Restorative justice standards are seen as transferrable to other domains for situations where harm has been caused. Standards in relation to the proactive, relationship-building elements of restorative practices are not developed to the same extent.

Key sources of standards and best practice include the European Forum for Restorative Justice (2018), the Council of Europe (2018), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2020) and the Restorative Justice Council, UK (2020). Other relevant sources include legislation such as the Children Act 2001, the European Union Directive 2012/29/EU and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017, as well as national bodies in other countries such as the Institute for Research and Innovation in the Social Services, Scotland (2018) and the New Zealand Ministry of Justice (2019).

Standards need to be broad enough to cover all eventualities and it is recommended that they should not be so prescriptive as to restrict creativity and innovation (European Forum for Restorative Justice, 2018). Each restorative event has unique features and practice choices are required on an on-going basis. Understanding the basis for standards helps ensure that choices are faithful to the overall ethos and objectives of restorative practice.

The United Nations (2002, 2020) and Council of Europe (1999, 2018) have recommended that countries establish robust restorative justice oversight structures and procedures, with agreed standards monitored by a competent authority. In 2020, the UN reiterated that Member States should establish guidelines and standards, with legislative authority where necessary. Ireland currently lacks formal national structures for setting standards and monitoring performance and service providers and funders have developed their own systems, informed by legislation, drawing on international sources and focused on restorative principles and values.

What might standards look like? Restorative Practices Ireland (RPI) recently updated its 2014 quality assurance framework for restorative practices with revised standards as a guide for practitioners, trainers, services and others. It draws on all the sources mentioned above and presents the draft standards under five principles: voluntary participation, inclusivity and engagement, empowerment and restoration, safety, and accountability and support. The standards under voluntary participation include participation based on choice and informed consent and with sufficient time to get independent advice and reflect before deciding, and the right to withdraw consent at any stage. Standards under inclusivity and engagement include participation by all those affected by harm, non-discrimination and participation by supporters. The empowerment and restoration category includes putting harm-doer and harmed person centre stage, preparation of parties, ensuring respect and having a problem-solving focus. Safety standards include risk assessment and mitigation and confidentiality. Accountability and support standards include accountability for behaviour coupled with support to make amends and avoid recurrence as well as the nature of agreements.

RPI’s draft standards will also be used as a basis for consultation with RPI members and interested bodies as to their further development as a set of agreed national standards and accompanying guidance. The intended consultation will also explore other elements of quality assurance, including the establishment of a national oversight body.

Without an ongoing commitment to consistent quality, practice risks becoming mundane and lacking the restorative essence that makes it successful. In that scenario, practice slips down the restorativeness scale, risks making situations worse and is devalued and discredited. If high quality is to be achieved consistently, it cannot be taken for granted and needs to be reflected in job specifications, resource levels and timetables. Individuals and organisations need to commit and re-commit to quality.