Gavin and Sabbagh (2019) on restorative community courts in Ireland
15th March 2021

Intern Catriona Kenny’s first summary outlines the key arguments from Gavin and Sabbagh’s paper Developing Community Courts with Restorative Justice in Ireland (2019, British Journal of Community Justice 15(2), 19-40). The article argues that Ireland should learn from efforts in other countries to develop community courts that are informed by restorative justice, and have co-located services and clear ties to local communities.

Key Message:

The introduction of community courts in Ireland should incorporate elements of restorative justice. This would require multi-agency work to develop community courts, and the judiciary and practitioners to understand and use restorative principles and practices. Restorative justice should also continue its development in Ireland independently of community courts.


In this recent article, Gavin and Sabbagh consider the development of community courts and the possible integration of restorative justice into community courts within Ireland.  

The first community court was established in 1993 in the Midtown area of Manhattan, New York City. This community court focused on local quality-of-life offences, such as drug use and shoplifting, and sought to combine punishment and help for low-level offenders through community restitution and treatment. A second community court was introduced in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in 2000. This multi-faceted model responded to family cases and other civil disputes, as well as quality-of-life criminal offences. So successful were these courts in reducing adult and juvenile recidivism and increasing rates of public trust in criminal justice agents/agencies, that they received international attention. Several jurisdictions, including the UK, South Africa, Israel, Sweden and Canada, have since opened community courts.

Due to the unique set of problems faced by any community, courts are fundamentally unique and tailored to the area they serve. However, community courts typically combine therapeutic jurisprudence, problem-solving and community justice approaches, and operate according to several common principles: multi-agency collaboration; community engagement; enhancing the information available to judges when making their decisions; accountability; individualised justice; and an outcome-orientation.

Following visits to the Midtown and Red Hook community courts in New York, as well as the Philadelphia Community Court, in 2006, the Irish National Crime Council highlighted several characteristics that an Irish community court would have, and that would be mutually beneficial for both offenders and community. These include:

  • a dedicated judge;
  • a pre-trial assessment;
  • offenders must plead guilty;
  • a problem-solving focus;
  • a team-based approach and on-site provision of key services;
  • rigorous monitoring of compliance with court orders;
  • restitution to the local community through community work completed by perpetrators in appropriate cases; and,
  • the formalised involvement of the local community (p. 23).

The National Crime Council recommended a list of minor offences that would fall under the jurisdiction of an Irish community court, including drug use, theft and public order offences. It also recommended that a pilot community court be located in Dublin due to the high proportion of offences that occur there.

Despite the Council’s 2007 report being shelved for nearly a decade, a community court pilot scheme was recommended following the 2014 Irish Parliament’s Joint Committee Report on hearings in relation to these courts. It was recommended that a pilot scheme be carried out in Dublin (for ease of its monitoring and review), under the supervision of a dedicated judge and “supported by an implementation group and local community groups and services” (p. 24). The development of community courts in Ireland has received political support, most notably from the Irish Senate, the Department of Justice and Equality, and Dublin City Council.

Restorative justice has developed slowly and steadily in Ireland. A number of Probation-funded NGOs use it with adult and juvenile offenders, and there exist juvenile restorative programmes delivered by probation and the police that have shown some promising results. Other important developments in Ireland include short-lived pilots of restorative practices in Wheatfield Prison and the Dóchas Centre and the final report of the National Commission on Restorative Justice, which proposed implementing restorative justice nationally, but was criticised by Facing Forward for excluding sexual offences. More recently, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 placed the provision of information about restorative justice services to victims of crime on a legislative footing, and the Probation Service established a Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit shortly thereafter. However, there remains a lack of training in restorative justice for the judiciary, as is exemplified by the case of John Carvin. This highlighted the need for a statutory agency to develop accreditations and national minimum standards for restorative justice.

Ireland should incorporate restorative justice into community courts pilots, and develop its use independently of community courts. The Red Hook Community Justice Centre in Brooklyn and the (now defunct) North Liverpool Community Justice Centre provide potential models in terms of their principles, objectives, multi-agency approaches and use of restorative justice. In Liverpool, the court provided justice for the victim and wider community while simultaneously rehabilitating offenders through a multi-agency model of treatment. The centre was established in 2004 and, despite positive recognition of the centre by the community and offenders, closed in 2013 following funding cuts. It is from the development of this centre that the authors warn Ireland to “learn from the mistakes of others” (p. 32) when developing community courts.

Any community court in Ireland should focus on restorative, multi-agency and problem solving approaches to stand a strong chance of enabling desistance, and must allow co-located services to refer cases and share information easily. A dedicated judge, trained in restorative justice, is also vital. A pre-trial assessment and early guilty plea option can enable offender accountability and the identification of any treatment requirements they may have, and facilitate restitution for victims and the wider community. Engaging in mechanisms that seek to repair the harm caused to an individual or the community can provide the link between the community itself and the restorative approach, as well as feeding into local problem-solving efforts and existing restorative justice services.


You can read a short, recent article on community courts in Ireland by Niamh Wade here.