New research suggests rising cases, mixed picture, for restorative justice in Ireland in 2020
19th July 2022

Dr. Ian D. Marder

Maynooth University, School of Law and Criminology

In June 2022, Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change (RJS4C) published a second sweep of data as part of our mapping exercise on restorative justice in Irish criminal justice. The goal was to explore the use of restorative justice in the 2020 calendar year, following the January 2021 publication of an initial dataset pertaining to 2019. The data suggest that, while cases increased overall from 2019 to 2020, a growth in cases reported by the Garda Youth Diversion Programme masked a fall in cases reported by other services. While those declines may be attributable to COVID-19, the proportion of cases referred to restorative justice in Ireland remains miniscule, compared with the overall criminal justice workload and the likely number of cases in which the parties may have benefitted (see p.7) from participating.

To create this dataset, we sent a survey to six organisations providing restorative justice services: the Garda Síochána, the Probation Service, the Cornmarket Project, Le Chéile, Restorative Justice Services and Restorative Justice in the Community. We published the survey responses in full on seven service profiles (dividing Probation’s youth and adult cases into two profiles). These profiles can be found on our website, along with narrative and tabular summaries of the new dataset, and the profiles and data summaries from 2019. We are extremely grateful to these organisations and all those with whom we liaised for providing these data, especially given the challenges brought by COVID-19. We are also very grateful to Dr. Kieran O’Dwyer, who led this work before stepping down from RJS4C this spring.

Overall, these six organisations reported delivering around 1056 restorative justice processes in 2020. This is indicative of the scale of provision, but limitations within these data – including, but not limited to, mixing of different models of practice, different years, and cases referred and completed – prevent us from providing a definitive figure. This marks a rise from the 853 cases reported in 2019, although notably, a steep increase in cases reported by the Garda Youth Diversion Programme (716 in 2020, up from 125 in 2019) masks a sharp decline in cases reported by the other major providers. For example, Restorative Justice Services reported 177 cases in 2020, down from 433 in 2019. Restorative Justice in the Community reported a similar drop in its caseload, from 200 in 2019 to 87 in 2020.

For these services, which continue to receive the vast majority of referrals from the District Court, the fall in cases is probably a result of the consequences of COVID-19 on the criminal courts. In December 2020, it was reported that COVID-19 restrictions led to a backlog between three and four times higher than is typical. This disproportionately affected offences at the less serious end of the spectrum, which we found were also the case types most likely to be referred to restorative justice, such as road traffic offences (which we estimate accounted for 20% of referrals in 2020), drug offences (19%), acquisitive crime (19%) and public order (17%). Ireland still lacks a mechanism to refer cases to restorative justice pre-charge or pre-conviction when the perpetrator is an adult, limiting the ability of police, judges and prosecutors to use restorative justice to tackle Ireland’s substantial court backlog.

With respect to the Garda Síochána, the significant increase in case numbers correlates with its efforts to enhance the use of restorative justice. For example, the 2019 annual report stated that new funding was allocated in 2020 for ‘training, education and promotion of restorative justice practices’, including that ‘restorative justice briefings will be delivered in Quarter 1 2020 to JLOs and Garda management on a regional and divisional basis’ (p.16). The report also references an unpublished ‘restorative justice strategy developed in 2019’ (p.24), which could help explain the growth in cases from 2019 to 2020.

Aside from the number, however, we know little about Garda cases from these data. For example, we do not know in how many cases victims participated (either directly or indirectly), nor do we know the models of practice used, the outcomes agreed, the levels of compliance, the impact on desistance, on engagement with services and on family relationships, and the criteria and process used to determine whether restorative justice is offered in a given case. Most of this information is also missing from the other services. Having published two years of data on the delivery of restorative justice in Ireland, we believe there is considerable potential to collaborate with service providers and with the Department of Justice to standardise and develop the types of data that are collated and published, in order to aid our understanding of how restorative justice is used and how its provision might be improved.

We know, however, that very few cases are referred to restorative justice. For example, the Diversion Programme report for 2019 states that at least 7,661 children were cautioned that year. Although our data show that referrals to the Diversion Programme fell by 17% from 2019 to 2020, it seems that very few cases involve restorative justice. In a similar vein, the Courts Service annual report for 2020 shows that the District Court received 226,081 defendants and resolved 194,796 cases that year (pp. 86-87), suggesting that restorative justice was used in an even smaller proportion of court cases than in youth cautions. Based on figures provided by the Probation Service, we estimate that 15 of their youth cases and 24 of their adult cases involved restorative justice in 2020 (not including 12 additional adult cases that the Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit estimates took place without their involvement). At the same time, 15,537 offenders were ‘dealt with the in the community’ by the Probation Service, according to the annual report for 2020 (p.3). At all stages of the criminal justice process, the potential for restorative justice is far from being met.

Interestingly, our estimates suggest that the proportion of victims who opt to participate in restorative justice is quite high. We estimate that victims participated in 65% of cases with a direct victim. Almost two-thirds of these cases, we estimate, involved indirect participation (such as shuttle mediation and letter writing), while just over one-third involved a direct victim-offender dialogue. While this suggests that victim interest in restorative justice is high, we urge caution on the interpretation of these figures, which are based on a small number of cases, on estimates and assumptions made around the number of cases which had a direct victim who could hypothetically participate, and on participation estimates extrapolated from data for previous years for some services.

Overall, the data suggest that the cases referred to restorative justice remain mostly at the lower end of the spectrum of seriousness, while very few victims are enabled to participate in restorative justice in Ireland. This is problematic, especially given provisions in the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 that all victims should receive information about restorative justice when the service is available.

That said, we are delighted to see renewed commitments to the development of restorative justice in several recent plans and strategies, including the Justice Plan 2022 (p. 33), the Criminal Justice Sectoral Strategy 2022-2024 (p. 11), the Third National Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Strategy’s  Implementation Plan (p.37), and the Youth Justice Strategy 2021-2027 (p.5).

We look forward to working with the Department of Justice, and with restorative justice providers and other stakeholders, to support this work in the coming months and years.

For a detailed analysis of the 2019 data in light of Irish and international research, click here.