Check Against Delivery

I am here this evening to address the motion before the House on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality & Defence, Mr Alan Shatter TD, who unfortunately cannot be here.  Minister Shatter is attending meetings in Brussels this week in his capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality, and for Defence.  I welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the matters addressed in the motion.

The first point I would like to make is that restorative justice is a system of criminal justice focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.  It uses processes that bring those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.   As such I welcome the opportunity here this evening to discuss this motion and to the listen to the contributions being made.  In particular, I would like to thank the Senators who tabled this motion for their support of these important victim sensitive measures within the criminal justice system.

It may be helpful if I were first to explain that restorative justice is an evolving concept that has given rise to different interpretations and one around which there is not always perfect consensus.  For our purposes, the definition arrived at by the National Commission on Restorative Justice (2007-2009) is the one on which to base our development of this form of criminal justice.  This definition states that:-

"Restorative Justice is a victim sensitive response to criminal offending. Which, through engagement with those affected by crime, aims to make amends for the harm that is caused to victims and communities and which facilitates offender rehabilitation and integration into society "

Turning to the Motion under discussion, it is the Minister’s intention to develop and extend restorative justice practices to the greatest extent possible and provide them as a nationwide non-custodial option within the criminal justice system.  The provision of restorative justice practices is a priority for the Probation Service.  Indeed, the restorative principles of admitting to and repairing the harm done to the victim and to society by offending behaviour are central to the already familiar practice of Community Service which the Probation Service already delivers so well, alongside the more recently established Community Return initiative.

Both schemes operate primarily from a reparative model, requiring offenders to address the indirect harm to the community caused by their offending by performing unpaid supervised work benefiting the community they have harmed.  Through the Community Return Scheme, prisoners who have already served a custodial sentence now have the structure and opportunities to engage in restorative practices and avail of the rehabilitative effect of repairing some of the harm they have done and re-integrate into society.

The Probation Service is currently drafting an integrated Restorative Justice Strategy.  This strategy will set out a series of actions which the Service will drive forward in collaboration with its partners, to bring about greater availability and integration of restorative practices at various stages of the criminal justice process in respect of adult offenders. 

The strategy is intended to include actions that will facilitate expanding and strengthening the capacity to ensuring the provision of high quality restorative justice projects and services.  The strategy will also provide for the greater use of restorative practices in the overall assessment and supervision of offenders referred to the Probation Service and partner agencies.

In order for restorative justice practices to be more widely used, the Probation Service will build awareness and confidence among criminal justice professionals and the general public, providing them with the understanding that a restorative justice intervention is a viable sanction which can provide benefits for all stakeholders.

It is also the intention of the Probation Service to ensure that the quality of service provided by restorative justice interventions is consistently high and work to agreed restorative practice standards.  In all of its interventions, the Probation Service intends to provide for more inclusive victim sensitive services thereby extending the reach of restorative methods.

In order to do all this, it is understood that there will be an increased role for community members and volunteers.  The Probation Service currently works with and within communities to provide services to offenders.  Despite our difficult economic circumstances and ever increasing pressure on limited resources, the Minister continues to ensure that a large proportion of the Probation Service overall budget is available to fund community based organisations dedicated to the delivery of those services that help them in achieving their strategic objectives.

In working with adult offenders, restorative justice has the potential to break the destructive pattern of behaviour of those who offend by challenging them to confront the full extent of the harm, the emotional and physical impact, they have caused to their victims.  As a way of responding to offending behaviour, it balances the needs of the victim, the offender and the community by affording a real and meaningful opportunity to engage in a process where the victims’ perspective is considered and represented.

Restorative justice also offers a process whereby offenders take responsibility for their actions and the harm caused by their behaviour to the victim and to society and commit to making some reparation, allows the circumstances and factors leading to the offending to be addressed and, very importantly, allows the community an opportunity to bring its constituent members together for purposeful solution focused intervention.

The Probation Service, in partnership with community based organisations and some of its statutory partners currently deliver a number of Restorative Justice Programmes and interventions.  This includes Restorative Justice Projects available to a number of the District Courts in Dublin and the Midlands as well as, dedicated restorative justice responses to youth offending through delivery of Family Conferencing (Children Act 2001) and the recently established Restorative Justice (Pilot) Project in Limerick.

Restorative Justice practices are in place for juvenile offenders through the provisions of the Children Act, 2001 and the Minister is committed to extending such practices to work with adults.  

It is also worth recalling that restorative justice practices in Northern Ireland are well established, having been formally developed between 1995 and 2004.  Flexibility of practice is perceived by Northern Ireland practitioners as the best manner by which to achieve the aims of restorative justice which are; "to reflect best practice"; "that victimisation does not occur" and "that all parties, victim, offender and community come away as satisfied as possible with the outcome".

In that regard too, both the Probation Service and Irish Prison Service are involved with the NI Restorative Justice Forum in planning an all island event on restorative practices to coincide with International Restorative Justice Week in November 2013.  That is yet another welcome example of North South co-operation where learning, expertise, and experience is shared by key practitioners.

Turning to the Directive of the European Parliament and Council establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, Ireland took a positive approach to the draft Directive in the negotiations in the Council Working Party, at the JHA Council and during the Trilogues with the European Parliament.   For his part, Minister Shatter ensured that the enactment of legislation giving rights to victims was a key commitment in the Programme for Government.

The victims’ directive includes a range of provisions for victims to protect them from secondary victimisation and intimidation, in the event that restorative justice services are offered.  These protections include the requirement that any victim involvement in restorative processes is subject to free and informed consent, which may be withdrawn at any time.  The victim should also be provided with full information about the process, possible outcomes and the methods used to supervise the implementation of any agreement reached.  In addition the victims’ directive requires that any agreement, which involves the victim, is concluded on a voluntary basis.  The directive ensures that the legitimate concerns of the victim are taken into account where the victim is included in the restorative process. These victim concerns must be addressed, while acknowledging the equally legitimate efforts to rehabilitate offenders.

Minister Shatter has long held a deep interest in the needs of victims in the Irish criminal justice system.  In 2002, and later again in 2008, he tabled a Victims Bill while in opposition.   As further evidence of his commitment to protecting those who find themselves to be the victim of a crime, the Minister has ensured the budget for 2013 for the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime was maintained.

Minister Shatter has already instructed officials to begin preparatory work with a view to transposing the Directive into Irish law. The final date for transposition of the Directive is 16 November 2015. 

Finally, the House can be assured that this Government is resolute in its commitment to further develop and expand the restorative justice process throughout the State.  We must do and will continue to do everything we can to ensure its potential as a non-custodial option available to the criminal justice system is explored to the fullest extent possible.  Similarly, this Government is committed to ensuring that provision is made for victims to receive appropriate information, supports and protection, where they are called on to engage in restorative processes.  I commend this motion to the House.

Thank you.