On Monday 6th April 2020, the Estonian Ministry of Justice called a meeting of restorative justice services and experts from across Europe to discuss how we might use restorative justice and restorative practices during the COVID-19 crisis. This meeting involved over 30 persons from 12 European jurisdictions and was facilitated by Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University Department of Law, Ireland).
The conversation began with participants discussing their personal experiences of delivering restorative justice and restorative practices online, and their plans to use restorative justice and restorative practices online during the ongoing crisis. This led to a fruitful conversation in which the participants discussed the following ideas and practice contexts:
· One participant from England had experience of delivering a restorative conference online since the crisis began. They had completed the preparation with each party and, later that day, planned to bring them together ‘face-to-face’ using Zoom. They commented that, during preparation, one party’s internet connection had cut out regularly, but that this person still valued the opportunity to express themselves. One concern this practitioner raised related to their usual use of ‘needs cards’ with participants, in order to help them identify and express their underlying needs. In this case, they modified these materials into a one-page information sheet that each party was asked to have visible in front of them during the conference. They also commented that they intended to have all webcams and microphones on for the duration of the mediation. A Spanish participant noted that they had spoken with three colleagues who recently delivered online conferences for the first time, with a great level of success. Another person noted that the Norwegian mediation service already offered online mediation, but usually had a mediator physically present with each participant, which may not be possible in countries under lockdown.
· The Estonian participants discussed a plan to use virtual circles with small groups of young people, including young people who had been caught by the police breaching an ongoing social distancing regulation preventing gathering in groups of more than two persons. The idea would be to enable these young people to express their needs and reflect on the purpose of the regulations, and to divert them from possible sanctions. The Estonians tested this concept by holding a virtual check-in circle with young people they knew, finding that this provided participants with an enjoyable opportunity to discuss their feelings, how they are coping, the problems they are facing and the impact that the crisis is having on their lives.
· In Finland, a participant talked about focusing on youth work and outreach for young people, as well as describing an idea to work with the police and local government around conflict and crisis management. In relation to the former, they had used social media to organise online ‘cafes’ that young people could join, in which they could speak to each other and to professionals. In relation to the latter, they discussed the possibility of having restorative practitioners attending calls with police officers to offer restorative dialogue services in respect to conflicts, particularly in domestic disputes, abuse and violence. Throughout, participants discussed how the crisis put the victims of ongoing domestic abuse in additional danger, while increasing tensions within homes where non violent conflict was already present. It was noted that, beyond formal mediation services, there might be scope for restorative practitioners to support families to resolve and respond to conflicts to help prevent, reduce and repair harm, to the extent that this was possible. Participants noted that our focus should be on supporting vulnerable adults and children who are confined in unsafe environments, without the respite or temporary refuge of school or work. It was wondered if the field could identify and collaborate on practical ways of safeguarding vulnerable persons, and if teachers/lecturers might check in with students who had not yet participated in online learning.
· A participant from England described coordinating the COVID-19 support group on Facebook for their local area. They noted a plan to use this group to offer online conflict resolution or mediation locally and to coordinate a local group of ‘professional listeners’ who could support people locally by providing a listening ear and helping people identify and find ways to meet their needs. Social media groups could also be used to provide basic training on restorative listening and dialogue to build local capacity. Short YouTube clips, webinars and other ways of disseminating information and strategies for listening and de-escalating conflict were also flagged.
· An Irish participant discussed facilitating virtual check-in circles with undergraduate students in their university. These gave students a chance to connect with each other ways that had not been possible since they left campus some weeks earlier. These circles gave students an opportunity to express how the current crisis affected them and have positive conversations about the funniest and most heart-warming things they saw online in recent weeks. A Spanish participant described facilitating community-building ‘TED circles’ for their own family: they watched a TED Talk online while on and, using the sequential circle structure, discussed its content afterwards.
· A Catalonian participant described their recent use of restorative circles online in various serious contexts. Firstly, they were working with hospitals and local government to facilitate online circles for doctors and nurses to enable them to express themselves and share their feelings about their work. Hospitals had one fixed-time online circle each week for those who could join, and also one flexible circle, allowing hospital staff to establish a time at which most people could join. Secondly, in collaboration with hospitals, they also facilitated online circles with families that were grieving the deaths of their loved ones from COVID-19, many of whom were not able to attend any sort of funeral or ceremony following their death. The group heard that these were particularly intimate processes involving people who were often in shock because of what had happened. Thirdly, they were offering online support circles for groups of young people.
Aside from the different contexts in which they could use restorative justice and practices during the crisis, the group also discussed a series of practical challenges to doing so. These included:
· The relative merits of the different conference calling platforms: the group discussed the ease and better functionality of Zoom compared to Skype and other platforms, while noting that there were privacy and security concerns. A Spanish colleague introduced the group to a new start-up run by people with experience of using restorative circles within the corporate sector. This new platform, www.circl.es, is a professional platform for virtual circles, although its beta version cannot be used on phones at the moment while it is still in beta.
· Facilitators discussed the need to modify the information and support they give to those who are participating in virtual mediations. For example, participants need to be reminded to bring their own water and tissues, and supported to find a comfortable place to conduct the mediation where they will not be interrupted, or where interruptions can be kept to a minimum. Likewise, as noted earlier, facilitators may need electronic versions of any physical materials they would usually use.
· Concerns were raised about how to engage with the young people who needed support the most. It was noted that technologies were exclusionary, in the sense that many did not have devices or sufficient internet access to participate, while the barriers to engaging with hard-to-reach young people in ‘normal’ times were magnified at a time when practitioners cannot leave their homes. The necessity of certain technologies to participate in restorative justice and restorative practices in the crisis creates certain access to justice, education and support issues which we must seek to navigate and overcome.
Finally, the following broader issues were discussed
· Participants from Northern Ireland, Italy and Poland discussed concerns that online restorative work should be seen primarily as a unique response to current necessity. We should develop our skills and think differently because it is needed in the context of the crisis, but online work should not be normalised or take precedence following the crisis simply because it is cheaper. We need to make the argument in favour of being in the room together, where possible, for many reasons. Firstly, working online means that we lose, at least partially, the eye contact and body language that are crucial in communication. Secondly, while we may learn useful lessons from the literature on online and telephone counselling, this research notes that it is very difficult for professionals to avoid being more directing in their work when they are not in the same room as clients, while people simply do not interact as freely, easily or securely online. Indeed, online mediation might require a specific needs assessment because many persons are uncomfortable interacting in this way. Ultimately, after the crisis is over, it is important that we treat online approaches like shuttle mediation, that is, as an option when people cannot travel or otherwise cannot sit together. In the meantime, we should explore online platforms for e-mediation that exist in Europe, and that are used in the fields of corporate mediation and family mediation.
· The field of restorative justice is not in the business of profiting from harm and conflict. We must avoid the incidence or perception of offering the low quality and exploitative online services that some participants had seen taking place within mediation more broadly.
· Ultimately, there is a need for our services and we cannot stop because of the crisis. Restorative practitioners are servant to the parties, who are free, once fully informed of all the challenges and limitations, to decide that online approaches work for them or not. That being said, it is incumbent on us to use our professional judgement to distinguish between more or less urgent conflicts, and conflicts that are more or less conducive to online responses.
The group will meet online again next month (Monday May 4th, 11am UK, 12 noon Brussels, 13:00 Estonia) to update each other on their pilots and experiences. In the meantime, we ask that everyone continue to publish and share their experiences and experiments, so that we might learn from each other in this time of crisis and uncertainty. For example, you can find a guide to delivering online Circles Social Distancing (written by Kay Pranis) , and a guide to Virtual Community Circle (aimed at school students and written by Laura Mooiman) . The European Forum for Restorative Justice are looking for restorative practitioners to be interviewed about how they are responding to the extreme professional challenges that our field currently faces.