Restorative justice referrals in 2023 remain below pre-pandemic levels
13th June 2024

Dr. Ian Marder

Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology

This publication marks the fifth year in which we conducted a mapping exercise of the use of restorative justice in Ireland, focusing on cases being referred within the context of the criminal justice process. Datasets were previously published for 2019, 2020 and (collected and published in a single sweep) 2021 and 2022. These data suggested that restorative justice was used at a low level in 2019 compared with the overall criminal justice caseload (<1%). We also found that adult cases referred by the court plummeted by over 50% in 2020 following pandemic restrictions, and remained just above this lower level in both 2021 and 2022. New data for 2023 show that, despite the full unwinding of COVID-19 restrictions, the restorative justice caseload (excluding restorative cautions delivered by An Garda Síochána) remained well below pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

This mapping exercise explores the referrals and completed cases from five organisations that deliver restorative justice (mostly, but not only, in adult cases): Cornmarket Project, Le Chéile Mentoring (which takes referrals involving children and young people up to age 23), the Probation Service (including youth and adult cases), Restorative Justice in the Community, and Restorative Justice Services. I am very grateful to these organisations and to their managers and practitioners for the considerable amount of time they spent collating these data, and for providing permission to continue publishing the dataset in full. Below, we provide an overview of referral numbers, and follow this with an overview of the number of cases completed involving victim-offender dialogue in some form. We compare these data to that reported in previous years, and explain what we can and cannot conclude from the data, taking into account its limitations. Despite these limitations,  this mapping exercise remains the best available indicator of the scale of restorative justice in the Republic of Ireland, and of the year-to-year variations and trends therein. The article also provides some updates on figures for restorative cautions in 2021 and 2022, and on ongoing or forthcoming developments in the policy and service provision landscape in 2023 and 2024.

To see the full dataset from the 2023 calendar year, please click here. To see all published data from 2019-2023, please click here.

Referrals in 2023

Overall, participating services reported receiving a total of 447 referrals in 2023. The vast majority of these cases involved an adult perpetrator referred by the courts to Restorative Justice Services and Restorative Justice in the Community. Probation Service data are an underestimate because some Probation Officers likely used restorative justice without seeking facilitation from or reporting the intervention to the Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit (RJSVU). Crucially, the total number of referrals differs from the number of completed cases as referrals made in one calendar year may be worked on and completed in another year.

This figure, of 447 referrals, is also an underestimate for the number of restorative justice processes facilitated in Ireland in 2023 as it does not include restorative cautions delivered by An Garda Síochána, figures for which were not possible to access. It further excludes cases delivered outside of the formal criminal justice procedure, including those delivered privately by facilitators and NGOs that exclusively take victim self-referrals (often working in sexual violence, as our 2019 mapping and this blog by Dr. Marie Keenan make clear). In addition, we did not include restorative processes delivered in relation to institutional abuse responses in Jesuit and Spiritan schools. It is also likely that some processes took place in detention, given that staff in Oberstown, and staff and people in custody in some adult prisons, received training in restorative practices, mediation and related practices.

By comparison with previous years, the equivalent figures were 721 in 2019, 340 in 2020, 395 in 2021, and 413 in 2022. This means that the collapse in referrals that we saw during COVID-19 pandemic has still not reversed, despite coming from a very low starting point in 2019. As such, we can conclude that restorative justice continued to play only a very marginal role in the criminal justice system in Ireland in 2023.

Involvement of victims

As in previous years, it remains difficult to say with any certainty the number or proportion of cases in which a direct victim of crime participated in face-to-face or indirect dialogue as part of a restorative process. This is partly because providers have divergent recording practices and systems, and different models of practice. Moreover, some experienced significant staff turnover in 2023, making it difficult to collate case records for the purpose of this mapping exercise.

Consequently, we report that at least 83 cases were completed in 2023 involving some form of victim dialogue. Of these, at least 29 involved face-to-face dialogue (e.g. victim-offender mediation or restorative conferencing) and 54 involved indirect victim-offender dialogue (victims’ questions being asked and answered, and apologies or reparation being sought/offered and given without parties meeting). Again, the figures are likely underestimates because of the challenges experienced in accessing some case information in some participating services. Crucially, it does not mean that victims were contacted and declined to participate in the remaining cases. Rather, these figures reflect the fact that many cases that the courts referred to restorative justice involve offences without a direct victim (e.g. drug possession and public order offences) and that it is not always possible for restorative justice services to obtain victims’ contact details to offer them the opportunity to participate, when cases do involve offences with direct victims.

Update – Garda Restorative Cautions in 2021 and 2022

When we published the restorative justice mapping exercise for 2021-2022 in May 2023, it was not possible to obtain figures from An Garda Síochána for restorative cautions. This number is published in the Annual Report of the Committee Appointed to Monitor the Effectiveness of the Diversion Programme, but we saw substantial delays to these reports’ publication in recent years. Since then, however, the 2021 report has been published and a report from the 2023 Annual Youth Diversion Projects National Conference has made the 2022 figures public.

As such, we can report that there were 416 restorative cautions in 2021 and 568 in 2022. This compares with 125 in 2019, and suggests a reduction from 716 in 2020. This also enables us to provide updated figures for the overall restorative justice caseload in Ireland for 2021 and 2022. Adding the garda figures to the cases previously reported by restorative justice providers, Ireland saw a total of 811 cases in 2021 and 981 in 2022 (846 in 2019 and 1056 in 2020). Once figures for 2023 are published, we will provide a further update regarding the overall caseload that year.

Other updates in 2023 and 2024

We have reason to believe that there may be an uptick in cases in 2024. Firstly, 2023 saw the Department of Justice publish a policy paper on restorative justice, after which the Probation Service announced funding for a new restorative justice service to be located in Tuam Community Training Centre in Co. Galway. This means that the North West has a community-based provider of restorative justice for the first time, with a caseworker hired in late 2023 to provide this service. In addition, existing services are expanding their geographical remit: Le Chéile has started taking referrals from Co. Cork (in addition to Counties Limerick and Clare), and Restorative Justice in the Community has plans to expand to Westmeath in 2024. Athy Alternative Project reported a desire to establish a restorative justice service in its 2023-26 Strategic Plan. Finally, in a presentation at the Bar of Ireland in March 2024, Rachel Lillis (Probation Service, RSJVU) noted that €250,000 of funding allocated to the Probation Service in the budget will be dedicated to expanding restorative justice in Ireland, while Emeline Le Prince (RJS) reported receiving record numbers of referrals in Q1 2024. The additional funding was referenced in a Dáil Debate in April, where the Minister noted that the Probation Service was finalising a new Action Plan to expand restorative justice nationally and into probation practice.

Meanwhile, in Limerick, Le Chéile trained ten An Garda Síochána members to participate in restorative conferences, either based on their own direct experience of being as victim of crime in the course of their work, or as representatives of victims who do not want to be directly present during conferences. This training laid the groundwork for more conferences in 2024, with the goal of supporting participant empathy and relationships between young people and Gardaí.

The final significant development in 2023 was the establishment of the RJ CBO Network. At a meeting of service managers in June 2023, one agreed action was for Maynooth University to host and facilitate a meeting about the development of restorative justice provision in Ireland with service managers and practitioners. This took place in Maynooth on 27 November 2023, attended by around 30 people from Athy Alternative Project, the Cornmarket Project, Le Chéile, Restorative Justice in the Community, Restorative Justice Services, Tuam Community Training Centre and the Probation Service. There, the group developed a ‘plan on a page’, with collective goals, objectives and a series of actions for 2024. More about this group and its agree actions can be found here.