Thinking differently about Restorative Justice for survivors of domestic abuse

Published: Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

This is a blog by Sarah Boylan, who wrote her Masters Thesis at Oxford University on the use of Restorative Justice in cases of domestic abuse.

UK policymakers have supported the use of Restorative Justice (RJ) as a response to many types of crime since the 1980s, with advocates highlighting the benefits of such approaches for both victims of crime and people who have offended. The increased acceptance about the benefits of Restorative Justice is demonstrated by the 2015 Victim’s Code of Practice, which entitles all victims of crime to be given information about RJ. In practice, however, the availability of RJ has —for the most part—not been extended to survivors of domestic abuse and other sexual offences. Indeed, some policy makers and victims’ organisations have traditionally been wary about the use of Restorative Justice for survivors of domestic abuse. 

There are reasons to be particularly careful about the use of restorative approaches in cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence. A face-to-face meeting between an abuser and a survivor brings about particular challenges, such as preventing retraumatization, and ensuring that participants are safe. It is the role of the restorative facilitator to take these considerations into account, and to only progress with a restorative meeting if it is safe to do so.

However, there are also significant benefits of RJ for victims of domestic abuse which are sometimes overlooked in the context of these concerns. Many domestic violence survivors have been through restorative processes, and some have told their stories as Why Me? ambassadors. Their accounts can tell us a lot about the power of RJ for survivors of domestic abuse, and their experiences are invaluable to increasing our understanding. Below is a short summary of what the literature and available evidence suggests are some of the benefits of RJ for survivors of domestic abuse. 

Providing a better alternative

Some advocates of RJ have pointed to the many failings of the current legal system as a reason that we need to provide alternatives for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. The often poor treatment of them by police and in the courtroom, the long history of low conviction rates for perpetrators, and the reality that many of those affected do not wish for a prison sentence to be imposed on their (ex)partners, are just some examples of the issues that have led many to question the appropriateness of traditional criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence. Despite the introduction of victim impact statements and other measures, some critics argue that this is insufficient to rectify the glaring issues traditional systems have with neglecting survivors and their needs. 

When compared with the wider criminal justice system, where victims have very little say in the outcomes of the proceedings, RJ places the desires and needs of the victim centrally to the process. Victims are a key part of RJ conferences and have a greater opportunity to have a say in the goals and outcomes of the conversation. For this reason, using RJ alongside traditional legal systems may be particularly beneficial to people who want to be involved in the process, as it allows them the opportunity to be included in a capacity other than as a witness or observer.

Giving survivors a voice, and listening

A second advantage of RJ is that it gives the people affected a platform where they can express the impact of the crime. This is particularly important for survivors of domestic abuse because the power imbalance in a coercive, controlling and/or abusive relationship can often leave them feeling like they are not listened to, and like they cannot speak up for themselves. 

Providing domestic abuse survivors with an opportunity to speak and be listened to can therefore be very empowering. RJ allows them to express the emotional, psychological and physical impacts of the abusive behaviour, which can have therapeutic benefits and relieve some of the stress and anxiety that resulted from the abuse they faced. There are more practical advantages too; in providing victims with a voice they can be heard, and hence their psychological, physical, and financial needs can be responded to and addressed. This can be done by friends, family or appropriate social services and takes a variety of forms for different victims in different circumstances. Due to the flexible nature of the process, RJ can be used to develop a victim-centred, individualised approach to responding to domestic abuse through taking into account the specific needs of each person affected by abuse.

Holding offenders accountable

RJ gives people affected by crime (and those in their support network) the chance to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, and encourage them to take responsibility for the harm they have caused. This is a key part of restorative practice, and is particularly important in cases of domestic abuse, because it can provide the opportunity to challenge the narratives that perpetrators sometimes use to try to justify their actions. Government research has shown that RJ processes lead to a 14% reduction in repeated offending for other types of crime. Positive results in other contexts could provide optimism for the suggestion that people who have committed sexual offences and domestic violence may also be able to desist from committing similar offences following a restorative intervention.

Thinking differently

Given the complex and varied needs of survivors of domestic abuse and sexual abuse, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to dealing with perpetrators is unlikely to ever meet the needs of all the people affected. RJ allows for a flexible and well-rounded response to such crimes, so embracing a more open-minded approach to the potential benefits of RJ for different types of vulnerable people is imperative. It allows us to continue to have conversations about what works to empower survivors and meet their needs in ways that traditional responses have not always succeeded. Therefore, listening to the experiences of those who have been through the process and continuing to conduct robust research has important implications, as it enables us to make more informed decisions about our policies and practices.

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