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Domestic violence and restorative justice: Does it work?

It is safe to say that restorative justice has proved itself in many areas of crime and violence. It is a worldwide movement, which like all justice theories and practices has its good and bad days. Since its return in the 1970s, we have seen it implemented in various contexts and at different stages of the criminal process. Of course, this is not to suggest that restorative justice is a panacea or that things can not go wrong. I have had the pleasure of witnessing some of the most powerful restorative justice moments, but also some of the darkest justice paths.

With this in mind, I have always been sceptical, but also interested, in the use of restorative justice with complex cases. By definition, restorative justice happens behind closed doors, and thus gaining the trust of practitioners and parties in conflict to allow you to observe is a must. It is a gift that should not be assumed and a task that demands time and genuine effort. I have been fortunate to access some complex cases some of which included ongoing domestic violence. I am also proud to have published (via RJ4All Publications) the first practitioners-led volume "25 restorative justice cases".

I have read many definitions of domestic violence. I have now come to conclude that domestic violence and violence against women are a society issue and an equality problem that typifies our relationship with the criminal justice system whereby traditional justice seeks to punish the offender on behalf of the state (the powerful) in disregard to the needs of the victim (the powerless). In this process, the true therapy, healing and restoration of the affected parties are often missed. They are not key objectives; the primary goals and the driving force of traditional justice remain in the notions of retribution, incarceration, just deserts and recidivism. This is not to suggest that the state and its corresponding justice system are irrelevant in the pursuit of justice.

There, I used findings from several research projects that I conducted on restorative justice and domestic violence over the last 6 years. These indicated that when restorative justice is applied appropriately it can be an alternative safe and effective approach that can hold the abuser accountable. I have published a free Guide for Practitioners on how to use restorative justice for domestic violence cases. This was also the outcome of research with victims, users and practitioners, and aligned with the Victims' Directive.

Our findings also concluded that it would be naïve to think that any domestic, regional, national or local justice system can bring uniformity in the way the norm of justice is represented in modern society. Moreover, it would be naïve to expect justice’s representation system to be a prefect reflection of its norm. Through the teachings of Aristotle, I have learned that though justice (including restorative justice) is objective, it is split up into two components: the human construct of the law and ethically-based fairness. We can be more demanding in terms of the representation of justice (the law), but have reasonable expectations from the agents attempting to represent justice (the value). As many victims and practitioners said to us during our research, “legislation alone will not do”.

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