Should Restorative Justice be used in Domestic Violence Cases?

Is restorative justice (RJ) “delivering justice on the cheap” or a way to empower victims of crime? Whilst the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have announced this month it will be making RJ available for all victims of all crimes, some women’s organisations that support the victims of sexual and domestic violence are concerned that RJ is a soft option for offenders and will put pressure on female victims to forgive their abusers.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Victims of sexual assaults are being given the option of confronting their attackers after conviction, or, as I leaned from one Think Tank, Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS), as a substitute for further criminal justice intervention.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Restorative justice allows victims and offenders to discuss crime and its consequences, usually involving an official mediator. The aim is to make offenders understand the damage they inflicted, explain their actions to the victim, and sometimes, to offer compensation. Currently, offenders and victims can ask to consider whether to participate. This happens after conviction, with the agreement of the victim. It is used where the offender admits guilt, typically accompanied by a non-custodial sentence.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Until recently, the scheme has only been available for minor offences such as criminal damage. In 2009, a judge-led review recommended: “While no offence should in principle be excluded from the restorative process, certain serious offences such as domestic violence and sexual assaults should be excluded from the initial phases of implementation.”[dt_gap height=”10” /]

In October 2014, the MoJ delivered its third action plan on RJ, and are recommending it to every victim of every crime, whatever age and circumstances. In the initial stages the MoJ assured those in the women’s sector it would not be used in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. This guidance was also issued to police.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Restorative Justice

Figures recently released from Cornwall and Devon give what is perhaps a useful snapshot of numbers and types of crimes punished using restorative measures. Of the almost 10,000 that were dealt with by RJ, 9,487 cases in 2013-14 were taken out of the formal justice system, including one case of rape, 52 other sexual offences,  and just over 2,700 crimes of violence. This showed an increase of 11.6 over cent between 2012 and 2013.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

RJ can include an apology, paying for damage and community work. Gabrielle Browne, running a marathon, was attacked in 2003. A man hid from her on a towpath, leapt out at Browne, and attempted to rape her.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“I would have gone mad if anyone had suggested RJ to me,” says Browne. “This offender was let out on bail after I failed to identify him in a line-up, and within weeks had attacked another woman at home. He showed no remorse or empathy whatsoever.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Browne is a member of the Independent Advisory Group (IAG) for ‘Restorative Justice in Europe: Safeguarding Victims and Empowering Professionals’.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“I was undergoing Home Office funded training in a prison, where one officer was asleep, and the presentation was slapdash. I was given keys to the prison, and was escorting high-offending, high-risk former gang members, who were not suitable for RJ. If you get it wrong it can be very dangerous.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Browne witnessed one RJ session involving a perpetrator of domestic violence and his ex-partner. “He was saying all the right things, coming out with textbook responses, whilst all the time twisting a pen in his hand. The victim ran out of the room screaming, because this is what he always did when he was building up to attack her. No one else in the room would have picked up on that.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Is RJ appropriate in cases of violence against women?[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“In theory, RJ can work for any crime type,” says Browne. “so long as the perpetrator is capable of a proper understanding of the crime, and of showing remorse.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]


IARS, a UK-based think-tank, has carried out research and evaluation on RJ. IARS research says that there is no evidence restorative justice cannot be used for complex and serious cases including domestic violence. In fact, most UK victims who participated in the research experienced a complex crime including sexual offending – but these cases should be handled by experienced professionals.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Theo Gavrielides, Founder & Director of IARS says that domestic violence creates challenges for restorative justice in safety and voluntary participation. “The readiness and suitability of restorative justice in cases of domestic violence remains largely unexplored and in-depth research is needed.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Gavrielides believes that RJ can ‘empower’ female victims of domestic violence. However, it is now possible for a judge to divert the case from court altogether if the perpetrator and victim are willing – therefore escaping any criminal penalties.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“The CJS is not doing that well in deterring men from being violent to their partners. Even if they go to prison, many of them will just come out and doing it again,” says Gavrielides . “This is why I often recommend RJ to women, because it can bring about a better sense of justice for her. What we need to ask is if the RJ process starts, is there a point at which it should be stopped and sent back to the CJS, because that is possible.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Eaves for Women

Heather Harvey is the Research and Development manager at Eaves for Women, a charity that supports victims of rape and domestic violence.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“When the MoJ embarked on RJ, many in the sector expressed grave reservations generally and specifically regarding crimes of imbalance of power, such as rape, sexual and domestic violence, forced marriage, and honour crimes,” says Harvey. “Consequently, we were assured that it would not be used in such cases. However, in a cuts climate, many of us were afraid this would be the thin end of the wedge and they would gradually worm it into everything under the guise of choice and consent and so it has proven.”[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

Many from the women’s sector share Harvey’s concerns that substituting criminal sanctions with RJ could put women at risk.[dt_gap height=”10″ /]

“These crimes are highly personal, they are motivated by a desire to exercise power and control,” says Sandra (not her real name) who was offered RJ after reporting her abusive husband to the police for sexual assault and repeated domestic violence. “I was warned that if we both agreed to do this and he showed enough remorse and understanding of what he had done, that this could end up being used by his defence lawyers if it got to court, and maybe even in his parole hearing if he was sent to prison.” It seems that all too often restorative justice can be used to restore the reputation or position of power of the perpetrator, not the victim.

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