The role of forgiveness within Restorative Justice: young people who have been both harmed and harmer

Published: Friday, February 10th, 2023

This is a blog by our Development Officer (Youth Justice) Leah Robinson. This month Leah spoke at the First International Conference on Forgiveness and Being Forgiven. Here she shares takeaways from her session on the role of forgiveness in Restorative Justice. 


On the 1st and 2nd of February, Bar Ilan University held the First International Conference on Forgiveness and Being Forgiven from an Inter/Intra Cultural Perspective. The conference was a fascinating insight into the role forgiveness can play in a person’s recovery from being harmed by crime or conflict. Among the keynote speakers were Peter Woolf and Will Riley, whose experience of Restorative Justice led to Will founding Why me?. They spoke about the power of Restorative Justice and how transformative a process it was for them. 

I was selected to deliver a workshop centred around the role that forgiveness plays in Restorative Justice with a particular focus on young people who have been both harmed and harmer. When working through a restorative process, forgiveness is an important aspect to consider. Having said this, the harmer does not have to apologise to the person they harmed and the person harmed does not have to offer forgiveness. My workshop focused on the following questions: 


What does forgiveness mean for a young person? 


What does forgiveness mean when someone has been both harmed and caused harm? 


How can you utilise restorative practices, principles and language when discussing the idea of forgiveness with young people who have been affected by crime and conflict? 


Attendees of the workshop had the opportunity to consider, discuss and practise what it would be like to explain forgiveness to a young person. Participants focused on the importance of feelings and the fact that forgiveness can be a subjective concept when taken outside of an academic context. When working with young people, there is no need to use specific terminology and phrases and it is often better to explore concepts and feelings through restorative lines of questioning. The same can be said when exploring the concept of Restorative Justice itself; often it is better to avoid using the term ‘Restorative Justice’ entirely. 

Furthermore, similar discussions were had focusing on young people who have been both harmed and harmer. After explaining Mike Clayton’s ‘Onion Theory of Needs’, participants discussed what a young person’s needs may be in relation to Restorative Justice and/or forgiveness. 

Onion Theory of Needs

Figure 1: Adapted from The Handling Resistance Pocket Book (Clayton, 2011)

The ‘Onion Theory of Needs’ is often utilised in restorative practices due to the need to ‘peel back the layers’ in order to understand what someone needs to repair the harm that has been caused and move forward. One particular idea raised in the workshop was the want for revenge. Using a hypothetical example, this can be presented according to the ‘Onion Theory of Needs’ as follows: 

Positions: What we say we want from a situation and therefore what we allow people to know. In this case, the position is revenge. 

Interests: What we really want from a situation and what we often reveal once we have been asked more in-depth questions in relation to our positions. In this case, the interest is for the harmer to understand the hurt that was felt by the harmed. 

Needs: What we must have, which remains inflexible and constant. In this case, the need may be for the harmed person to be heard and have their feelings acknowledged and listened to in order for them to move forward. 

Attendees fed back that the workshop was insightful, interesting and engaging. The session was run as an interactive workshop, enabling participants to share their own case studies as well as discuss those I provided. 

The conference was incredibly eye-opening and thought-provoking. Forgiveness is an often debated topic in relation to Restorative Justice and it was fascinating to hear first-hand from those who have forgiven their harmers or those who harmed family members. 

A huge thank you to the organisers for arranging such an incredible two days and to Bar Ilan University for hosting, as well as to all the keynote speakers and presenters who ensured that the conference was filled with innovative research and inspirational first-hand experiences.

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