A While in the Making: An Adult Restorative Justice Strategy for Northern Ireland
20th April 2022

Lisa Higgins

Reducing Offending Directorate – Department of Justice, Northern Ireland

The use of restorative approaches in Northern Ireland’s youth justice system has long been a great success. Until now, however, there has been no overarching strategic approach for its use in the adult system. On 15 March 2022, the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland launched the first Adult Restorative Justice Strategy and Action Plan. This milestone has certainly been a while in the making: the first stakeholder discussions were held in July 2015, but a series of events, including the collapse of the NI Assembly, meant significant delays in delivering the final product. Now that it is finally here, what does it tell us and what do we expect to happen next?

This Strategy aims to improve engagement with, and outcomes for, victims, and to provide redress for the harm caused by crime and offending behaviour. It also seeks to develop positive and restorative alternatives to traditional justice responses when offending occurs. For those who may have reservations about the need for such an approach or question why it is being developed, the document provides a range of evidence and research in support of the work and the benefits which can accrue as a result. It does, however, come with a recognition that there is considerable work still to be done in terms of educating and informing all sections of society – and indeed those within the justice system – on the benefits and effectiveness of restorative approaches, if the Strategy is ultimately to be successful.    

The work is set in a human rights framework and underpinned by a number of basic principles which are informed by international standards and best practice. At its heart is the desire to build an effective victim-centred restorative practice culture, and to secure benefits for all parties involved in the process. It was this desire for a cultural shift in policy and practice which resulted in the Strategy’s vision that “restorative justice should be second nature, not a separate nature, within the criminal justice system and its partner organisations”. 

To deliver on this vision, the Strategy and its Action Plan set out a comprehensive approach to the introduction of restorative justice at all stages of the adult criminal justice continuum through, among other things: 

  • use as an early intervention tool to prevent issues escalating and/or the need for involvement in a formal criminal justice process;
  • incorporation as part of court-ordered community and custodial sentencing; and
  • to assist with rehabilitation and resettlement following custody.

It also incorporates restorative justice recommendations made as part of two Judge-led reviews in in Northern Ireland: Judge Marrinan’s review on Hate Crime Legislation and Sir John Gillen’s review of the Law and Procedures in Serious Sexual Offences in Northern Ireland, which propose that the use of restorative justice should be explored for hate crime and serious sexual offences, respectively.

The Strategy is clear that it does not stray into other Departments’ responsibilities. Whilst it acknowledges the potential applications of restorative practices beyond the justice system, the NI Strategy and the actions flowing from it are purposely limited to those aspects within the remit of the Department of Justice and its delivery partners. 

Those partners are drawn from a wide range of organisations who make up the Restorative Justice Working Group (RJWG), including: police and prosecution; probation, prison and youth justice; Victim Support NI; the Restorative Justice Forum; and the two groups formally accredited to deliver community based restorative justice in NI. In implementing the Strategy, many of these partners will engage in specific actions to expand the use of restorative interventions or develop new approaches and practices. They will also be involved in a key discussion around the need – or not – to legislate for restorative justice, a question which is explored in the Strategy, and to which there may be no right or wrong answer. Time will tell. 

Those involved in drafting and developing NI’s Adult Restorative Justice Strategy are rightly proud of the product and committed to the benefits which restorative approaches can bring. The Strategy does, however, come with a caveat: restorative justice will not be appropriate in every case, and its use should be only be undertaken with the full voluntary agreement of all parties, and delivered by skilled practitioners.  To do otherwise would be to jeopardise its future success.

And these are not the only safeguards which the new Strategy will deliver. A key priority for action, identified by stakeholders as part of the consultation and development process, relates to the 2007 Protocol which currently governs the referral of justice cases to restorative justice schemes in the community. This Protocol sets out an accreditation process for these community schemes which provides assurance regarding the schemes’ suitability to deal with justice cases. However, it is now 15 years old, and in some respects, it is hampering the use of restorative approaches for justice referrals. For this reason, work has begun on the action to review the Protocol and the Justice Minister has appointed an independent three-person panel to take the work forward. Their recommendations will aim to increase the opportunities to use restorative justice, while also delivering safeguards which reassure stakeholders as to the quality, professionalism and suitability of providers. In many ways, this will be the platform on which the Adult Strategy and its Action Plan will be built.

We know that publication of the Strategy is only the end of the first stage of the journey, and in some ways, it was the easy part. The RJWG will maintain a role in commissioning and prioritising actions, as well as monitoring and reporting on progress. Translating the ambitions of the Strategy into firm actions, particularly in a post-pandemic world where budgets are shrinking and experienced staff have been lost to other pursuits, will be challenging. But we know from experience both here and elsewhere that, when delivered professionally and sensitively, restorative approaches can bring significant benefits for the victims of crime, for individuals who have offended, and for families and communities. If we can deliver this, then it was worth the wait!