What does restorative justice mean?

A recent news story about an assault case that was diverted to restorative justice without the victim’s knowledge has raised some questions, and eyebrows.

For me, it created a lot of concern that this will be be the public understanding of what restorative justice means. While I obviously can’t comment on specifics of a case I know nothing about, I can comment on restorative justice (RJ) processes used here at Mediation Services.

We operate a diversion program, and have for more than 20 years now, long before the auspices of the Restorative Justice Act. Many of the principles outlined in the Act are the same ones which guide our work.

The first among these is the involvement of the victim. In every case we receive, our first step is to reach out to the victim, to let them know about the referral, and to invite their involvement on whatever level they choose.

Participation is voluntary, and victims can choose what that looks like for them. It can range from a conversation with a caseworker, to explore options and to talk about the impact of the offense, to providing information to be shared with the accused, through to participating in a meeting with the accused, if that’s something that is going to meet the victim’s needs.

They can also choose not to be involved at all, or to request that the matter be returned to court. Whether it proceeds through court is always going to be at the discretion of the Crown Attorney, as is the case with every file.

Justice statue at Supreme Court of Canada.

We do everything we can to ensure that victims have as much information as possible, so they can make the decision that is right for them.

If the victim is interested in a restorative option, our next step is to talk to the accused. In order to participate in our program, the accused has to take responsibility for the offense. If there is no responsibility, the file is simply sent back to court, because responsibility is another core value of restorative justice, and without it, we have nothing to work with. Put more simply, if someone can’t acknowledge doing the harm, then how can they work to put it right?

If the responsibility is there, even if it may need some support and coaching to develop further, then we talk with both parties about what type of restorative process will be the best fit for them. This may be a face to face mediation, or a community justice forum, or it may be an option that involves less direct contact.

That choice is made, first and foremost by the victim, with support from their caseworker. Participation is voluntary for the accused as well, though they do have a bit more incentive, as they usually want to try to resolve their charges.

Whatever the process used, if an agreement is reached (and that is an if, no one is obligated to agree) it will generally have two main components.

First, what needs to happen to repair the harm done, as much as it can be repaired? This will often involve elements such as apologies, payment of restitution for anything that was broken or damaged, completion of community service work as symbolic reparations for time spent by the victim, or other measures that are meaningful to the parties.

Second, what measures need to be in place to make sure that the accused doesn’t do something like this again? This will often involve elements such as counseling or addictions treatment, anger management, or other such programming. Knowing that these steps are being taken will often also be helpful for the victim in beginning to restore a sense of safety. Only once the agreement is complete is the charge disposed of.

RJ has always faced accusations of being soft, or a “slap on the wrist.” As someone who has worked in the field for more than 15 years, I can definitely state that for many accused, what they experience in an RJ process is a lot more difficult than what they would have gone through in court, and more to the point, it’s a lot more effective.

RJ is, at its best, relational justice, justice which humanizes people to each other, helps accused to develop an understanding of the harm they have done, helps victims find answers and meaningful resolutions, and by fostering that learning and understanding, contributes to individual healing, as well as more peaceful.


Restorative Action Centre Coordinator, Mediation Services

One response to “What does restorative justice mean?”

  1. Julien Cooper

    Thank you for this.

    Here’s my thoughts on Restorative Justice and other systems dealing with difficulties encountered by victims:

    There are many systems for this kind of matter and others needing some kind of services and other sorts of matters on attacks, as people see it. Some old that often continue to fail and are in great need of strong amendments and others that had other uses and should stay that way and or did / can expand for other uses.

    As I see it: For any system to work, there needs to be permission from the victim and to be that full correction to the offender as part of the process. In the case of abuse of person(s) or groups even paying out any gains made in an act as in all money made or being made from the act, and any other damages needing compensation to the victim(s) or victim group regardless of what kind of act it was. And distance and or other means to free the victim of any lingering fears needs to be a part of it, even in the case there was public abuse by disseminating hate. There also needs to be often acknowledgement of harms done if there is any leadership anywhere by the offender, to point out that these acts are not / were not permitted, there are ways to prevent them and most everything in life has a connection to keeping these acts low to nonexistent with justice dealing with the resulting low amount of acts. And this leadership continuing or starting new would only be in the case the offender does not do leadership roles over the victim’s job site or other close nit community, that the offender can not make personal contact nor punishment through that leadership role and that the offender has controls to avoid any punitive acts from afar as well.

    As for having the victim part of it, that should be the choice of the victim as to what kind of contact, not as dictated by the people leading the system nor by the design of the system and [especially not] by others who refer to the system or incorporated the system into the workplace management staffing and policy. Either way, involved or not, the victim does need to know the workings of the system and the case entering and proceedings within it, so as there is that information even if the victim does not want to communicate, confront, thank or otherwise deal with the offender as part of the process.

    Acts against women or other person of a discriminated group or against one of these groups needs to be recognized with the acts used to harm the person or group recognized for what they are. That is so as these acts are not put in reports as part of a simple disagreement but rather as what the attack was intended to do.

    Self defense need be recognized as what it is, not as an attack where there is other action by the other side, especially where the other act is first.

    I am a strong believer that common abuse victims suffer more by the close contact involvement, length of case and hidden facts as well as not having their typical sufferings (attacks by offenders) recognized in their cases, as in how they often suffer being part of next case but seen as a smaller thing or not that important. I know many people suffer more then one attack, some plenty attacks of the same kind and they tend to be a long number of uniformly dealt attacks because those kinds of attacks rarely get real recognition nor proper justice.

    Perhaps we need to recognize that there be a difference between victim abuses and disagreements and decipher where these belong and where they are best served, as well as keep all parties involved to the degree any victim has the voice to decide what part of it and how it goes will be heard and honoured.

    Let there be all sorts of ways to deal with what goes on in our lives, but call upon them, use and work them as Magan Bowman has indicated for Restorative Justice.

    Let’s keep the conversations going so some day soon we may iron out what works; what needs variabilities; what need not be part of some kinds of cases and how best we get the victim’s needs met especially in the case of what kind of process and what is going on within it.

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