The debate on how the consequences of an offence could be faced and resolved by those immediately involved (the victim and the offender) started in Europe in the late sixties when concrete proposals for innovative projects were formulated in various European countries. This was around the same time that the first experiments with victim-offender mediation were set up in Canada and the U.S. Some of the first North-American initiatives were clearly influenced by the theoretical work of European scholars.
In European countries, the present form of victim-offender mediation came into existence in the 1980s. A first pilot project was started in Norway in 1981 and Finland followed two years later. In Austria the model was called ‘out-of-court offence resolution’ and was introduced nationwide first in juvenile courts (1988) and in the meanwhile also in the Criminal Procedural Law in general (January 1st 2000). In England, after small-scale experiments from 1979 onwards, the Home Office funded and researched four projects from 1985-87, but they have not expanded nearly as rapidly as in Germany, which started at about the same time but now has over 400 services. In France, where work also began in the mid-1980s, it was linked from the outset with victim support.
Initially, victim-offender mediation showed a rather slow development. Although experiments were deemed positive, not least by the victims and offenders involved, the movement did not immediately receive widespread support. The approach was very new within the culture of legal professionals and criminal justice policy makers. In most countries more than a whole decade had to pass in order to develop a practice of some significance. The creation of a legal framework sometimes provided an important impetus, but did not always cause the hoped for breakthrough. From a quantitative point of view, the practice remained rather limited. From a qualitative point of view, however, many small-scale experiments and also some national programmes provided, in this first phase, conclusive evidence that this way of responding to crime contained a strong innovative potential.
During the 1990s, the number of mediation programmes and the amount of cases dealt with on an annual basis increased steadily in European countries. Victim-offender mediation has now become a well-founded practice in some countries. In some of places, volunteers play an important role in daily mediation practice, whereas in other countries the intervention is highly professionalised. Diversity is equally shown in the type of relationship that the mediation services have with the criminal justice system: from exclusively system-based to primarily community based. The practice – contrary to common belief – does not in any way remain limited to property or less serious offences. Although the focus of victim-offender mediation in some European countries is still predominantly on juveniles, the application in general criminal law is gaining more and more acceptance. Experience of mediation in the successive stages of the criminal justice process, also after sentencing, is growing. The latter refers to the increasing trend of promoting restitution and redress as eminent principles of criminal justice in general. In this sense, victim-offender mediation is just one model of restorative justice. The family group conferencing approach brought a new wave of restorative justice, following evolutions in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S.
At the end of the 1990s, a new phase in the European development of victim-offender mediation could be distinguished. While countries like Germany, Norway, France, Austria and Belgium already had legislation at their disposal at the beginning of the 1990s, at the end of the decade a legal framework was developed in several other countries (U.K., Finland, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia) or the field of practice was enlarged legally and refined considerably (France, Germany, Austria).