Doing restorative justice

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by Joellen McHard

I was drawn to doing volunteer work with the Lanark Country Community Justice Programme for several reasons.  A great deal of my professional work has been in developing countries where large segments of the population do not have meaningful access to the formal justice system – and even when they do the system often does not serve them well – particularly  poor people.  I was often seeking alternative ways of resolving disputes or seeking justice.  Back in Canada, there are also many challenges with our own justice system.  Timely access is increasingly a problem.  Courts are overloaded.  Perhaps more important, many ordinary people, the police and those in the legal profession feel that the court system is not always the best way to deal with certain kinds of judicial problems. 

The restorative or community justice approach differs from the normal court process in several ways.  It emphasizes the importance of an individual taking personal responsibility, helping them to understand how others have been affected by their actions – and making amends for what was done in some way.  Hence the process is not primarily about proving who is guilty or innocent or whether a person is good or bad.  The emphasis is on individuals taking personal responsibility, recognizing the hurt caused to others and “righting the wrong” – to the extent this can be done.

The process can sometimes be demanding, intense and challenging.  However, you can volunteer as little or as much as you like by only taking on a case when you have time. Training and the use of a well tested, structured process is critical.  As a volunteer, the satisfaction comes in several ways.  The big one is watching two people (and often their families) who have been strongly affected by the behaviour of an individual being able to communicate with them, resolve differences and reduce or eliminate tensions between them.  Another payoff is getting out in the community, meeting a wide range of people, getting a better understanding of what is going on in our community, getting a better understanding of our judicial system – and feeling that one is “putting back”.  A final payoff is that we know the process works – from our discussions among ourselves, other groups as well as the Crown and the police.  People who come through the community justice program rarely reappear in our program or in the courts. In practice this means that the person who has committed the offence is brought together in a meeting (usually called a forum) with the person or persons who have been affected.  The meeting is managed by two facilitators who are trained volunteers who use a structured process.  This ensures that the discussions are respectful, that everyone has a chance to express themselves and to be heard by others.  Some meetings are small and only involve the facilitators, the person who committed the offence and the person directly affected.  Some meetings are much larger and involve a number of people who committed an offence and several others – often family members, neighbours or others.  Small or large, the objective is to provide an opportunity for respectful discussion to clarify what happened, what people were thinking or feeling at the time, to provide an opportunity for people to explain how they were affected – and for everyone to be heard. The meeting concludes with a negotiated legally binding agreement which is intended to make restitution or repair some of the physical or emotional harm that has been caused.  Sometimes, a simple apology is enough.  In other cases, the agreement involves making restitution in the form of work or payment, doing community work, an agreement to seek counselling. 

Financial support comes from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the United Way, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and complements the work of board members, volunteers, members of the community and increasingly the police.

If you are interested in more information about becoming a volunteer I would highly recommend that you call the office and talk to Sheri toll free at 1(888) 264-1558 or 1(613) 264-1558 for local calls.  You can also check out their website at www.commjustice.org.