In this interview, Diāna Ziediņa talks to Olga Kiseleva about the difficulties of organising and carrying out restorative programmes for domestic violence cases at the State Probation Service of Latvia. Diāna discusses how to work with such sensitive cases in an institution designed and focused on working with offenders.

The State Probation Service of Latvia is an institution under supervision of the Ministry of Justice, established on 7 October 2003. Its mission is to ensure public safety through the rehabilitation of offenders and organising restorative justice programmes.

Victim-offender mediation in criminal cases has been available in Latvia since 2005. State Probation Service is an institution responsible for the organisation and carrying out of restorative justice programmes. According to the Latvian legislation victim-offender mediation can be organised in all types and stages of the criminal procedure. Cases can be referred by the police, prosecutors, the court as well as by the parties themselves — victims and offenders. These rules apply to cases of domestic violence as well. In general, practice is based on the principles of restorative justice where crime is defined as a conflict between members of society and their needs should be considered. A well-trained facilitator is an important condition in cases of victim-offender mediation. State Probation Service has been an active member of the European Forum for Restorative Justice since 2017.

It is evident that the State Probation Service primarily works with offenders, and they are its main focus. How is this aspect addressed while working with sensitive cases, such as domestic violence?

The court or public prosecutor can order offenders to perform community service or attend programmes that address specific problems, and this is where the State Probation Service steps in as offenders are truly the main focus of our institution. The mission of State Probation Service is to ensure public safety by executing criminal punishments, which are not related with deprivation of freedom. It is our task to help them reintegrate into society: find a job or other ways to get the necessary skills/education for that, establish healthy relationships, sort out addictions and productively spend their free time.

On the other hand, mediation is a process that requires the offender’s voluntary participation, and it can be seen as an alternative to the traditional criminal process. In cases of lesser felony, mediation could be the circumstance that allows one to discharge the criminal persecution. If an agreement has been reached between offender and victim during the mediation process, then it can be used to end a less severe case. In cases of high-class felony (or severe cases), victim-offender mediation can be considered by court as a circumstance that mitigates culpability. If the parties agree to participate in victim-offender mediation it gives an opportunity for the victim (or survivor) to speak about their views and feelings, the damage done, the offence and its consequences and find a solution together with the offender to mitigate the harm that was done.

In cases involving domestic violence both parties need to be well informed and prepared for the meeting; there has to be a special consideration towards balancing the needs of both parties. Both parties are able to meet each other but it is crucial that both are equally well-informed and prepared for victim-offender mediation, as the victim could be at a disadvantage due to their relationship with an offender; thus they also experience different negative emotions, including fear. Both parties are able to bring persons of support with them, but they should also be balanced on both sides to avoid anyone having a feeling of being cornered.

Compared to victim-offender mediation in other cases, domestic violence cases may not have a specific solution as a goal, but rather revolve around the discussion itself, which can have an invaluable restorative effect. There is no doubt that victim-offender mediation in domestic violence cases requires experienced and professional mediators who are well-versed in the procedures of mediation and understand the purpose of its discussions, as well as are capable of properly preparing all involved parties for this meeting.

Diāna Ziediņa

Is it really possible to switch between the roles of a probation officer and a mediator? How do you manage to follow the basic restorative justice values and principles?

We used to say that a probation officer who is also a mediator wears ‘two hats,’ and sometimes it’s quite challenging to change focus from probation officer to mediator. It has to be noted that our probation officers are experienced multi-taskers as they have to provide probation clients with a wide range of different programmes, but it is true that mediation is in many ways different in comparison with their daily tasks; therefore we have established procedures for selecting and training potential mediators among our staff. Not everyone could perform these tasks. Probation officers, who have expressed their willingness to become mediators, undergo a rigorous assessment process; a significant part of this process is an interview in order to understand whether they share restorative justice values and are able to stay neutral as much as they can in discussions between victims and offenders. To guarantee their neutrality, they are not allowed to be mediators in cases where they have direct involvement with the offender in another probation programme. Of course, they are also provided with substantial training in restorative justice principles and desirable methods for conducting mediations. It should be mentioned that we also have volunteers as mediators, but they are not involved in sensitive and difficult cases, like those involving grave violence. Either way, the mediator has to be a professional and well-prepared specialist who understands restorative justice and is able efficiently to support all the parties involved.

Is the restorative approach widely accepted in the system’s domestic violence cases? Are there specific practices designed to address cases such as these?

Unfortunately, restorative justice practices are not widely used or accepted in domestic violence cases, but there are a couple of reasons for that. In cases of domestic violence there is some degree of ambivalence in the public perception of these cases, due to the close knit relationships between the parties involved. First of all, in these cases there is usually a requirement to involve several experts from different fields, such as psychologists, and they may believe that a conversation with the offender may not be in the victim’s best interests, that it could actually do more harm to them, and therefore that participation in a mediation session is undesirable. By law the police could also enforce a restraining order on the offender, which prevents them from coming into contact with the victim, though in reality both parties could stay in touch without the knowledge of the authorities, due to the nature of their relationship and the cycle of violence that it creates. Overall, these cases also tend to focus more on the victim and less on the offender, which is a contradiction to the restorative justice principle of providing an equal amount of attention to all involved parties, and it should be noted that there is a prevalent gender stereotype that all victims are women while all offenders are men in situations of domestic violence, but that is not necessarily the case.

Are there cases where the involved parties refuse to take part in victim-offender mediation? What are the main reasons for the offenders? Or the victims?

There are certainly situations like that. Most often it is because the offender denies the accusations, either by insisting that they performed none of the alleged actions, blaming the victim for situation that led to this case, or by justifying their action, genuinely believing that it was for the good of the family or even the victim themselves. As for the victim, they may not have the mental toughness to face their partner, even less so to stand up to them — they could also be emotionally or financially dependent on their partner and/or concerned for their children, believing that it is in their best interests to maintain this unhealthy relationship.

It is absolutely understandable that an offer to meet the offender, who is the perpetrator of the violence, could be really scary to the victim. What would be the adequate and correct way to inform victims about the possibility of taking part in restorative justice?

Yes, even though they have lived together the victim could be terrified to take part in restorative justice programmes as in these situations it is required of them to speak openly about their feelings, thoughts and the consequences that they have experienced. If their partner does not fully understand or accept the negative effect of their actions, then this can be a really difficult conversation. Therefore, it is crucial properly to prepare the victim for this meeting — give as much information as possible about the procedure itself, help them with a scenario about the potential questions that they may want to ask and what kind of answers they could expect from their partner. It should be noted that victims are also able to get support from their psychologists with any of these concerns as they are entitled to 10 free sessions, which are provided by a social care institution or NGO. In certain cases, shelter can be provided as well as a police enforced restriction order. There is also new instrument for dealing with domestic violence; from 01.07.2022 perpetrators, by a court’s decision, can be forced to participate in a social rehabilitation programme for violent perpetrators to decrease violent behaviour.

How are mediators trained?

Initially they go through several training modules, first among them being an introductory one, which introduces them to the core theory, history and values of restorative justice, as well the basics of conducting a victim-offender mediation, which includes a lengthy role-play with other trainees. Afterwards they are required to facilitate three victim-offender mediation sessions with the assistance of an experienced mediator, who also provides feedback about their performance. If it is satisfactory, then they are tasked with writing an essay about their reflections from this experience, after which they are able to facilitate victim-offender mediation on their own.

After gaining experience in victim-offender mediation facilitation, a mediator can apply for additional training. There are additional modules that train mediators on difficult, more sensitive cases, cases involving minors, facilitation of family conferences, etc. Currently we are working on a project that would introduce a more developed monitoring system for the skills and practices of trainees and new mediators.

Do you cooperate with other social services who work with domestic violence cases? Could you say that there is an interdepartmental cooperation in Latvia?

We do. We organise several events with other institutions and professionals who work with offenders and/or victims, such as the police, psychologists, courts, social workers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Through these events we discuss various topics and issues surrounding our work with offenders and/or victims to share knowledge, best practices, ideas for improvement, and generally promote inter-institutional cooperation.

Diāna Ziediņa is  the Head of Mediation and Community Involvement at the Coordination Division of the State Probation Service in the Republic of Latvia. 

She was interviewed by

Olga Kiseleva, who is the International Cooperation Co-ordinator at the Public Center for Legal and Judicial Reform in Russia and a Masters student,  of ‘International Criminology’ at the University of Hamburg in Germany.