The group first discussed facilitating restorative conferences and mediations online. Participants from Ireland, Finland, Estonia, the UK and the Netherlands reported either delivering cases online since the beginning of the pandemic, or that their services were gearing up for online practice. In Finland, for example, mediation providers are preparing to deliver cases remotely. Local services recently met to discuss issues like safety and confidentiality, as well as how to inform participants about the risks. They also consulted the Data Protection Commissioner and information security experts and wrote an online mediation process for Finland. This outlined procedures to conduct a suitability assessment for online mediation, as well as initiation, preparation, facilitation, and how to write the contracts online. Finnish mediators will soon be trained in the new process, and they will collect clients’ experiences of online mediation. The collection of practitioner and client experiences is a crucial task for restorative services and researchers at this time, so that we might learn from our experience and document what happens for the historical record. Indeed, Rule 66 of the 2018 Council of Europe Recommendation encourages restorative justice services to ‘allow and assist’ independent research on their services.
Participants in this week’s meeting discussed how some of their colleagues felt more comfortable transitioning to online work than others did, although mediators who had delivered cases online overwhelmingly reported positive experiences. Challenges were generally of a practical nature. For example, in Estonia, where they had conducted pre-mediation meetings online, clients were sometimes unable to find private spaces in their homes. One English participant raised concerns that online platforms were not necessarily suitable for persons in need of certain supports, such as those with intellectual disabilities, while one Dutch practitioner said that online cases generally required lengthier preparation and a more active approach to facilitation to ensure that everyone feels heard and understands fully the meaning behind each other’s comments.
That being said, participants also reported benefits to their use of online technologies. In England, one person reported using Zoom to host a national meeting of their organisation’s ambassadors that would not have been possible to organise face-to-face. Likewise, they found that it had been easier to involve specialist support persons in online preparation, who did not normally have time to travel to such meetings.
The Estonians were also among those reporting using online circles to support practitioners. They now run regular sessions for their own colleagues, and for social workers, police officers and care home workers. In these sessions, participants are enabled to reflect on how the virus has affected their work and lives, what has been most difficult for them, and whether they have any additional needs. An Irish participant also described moving their community of practice online, noting that demand had increased for these sessions among local teachers, youth workers and others trained in restorative practice. Meetings had moved from monthly to weekly since the start of the crisis, and levels of engagement and the depth of conversations among the attendees had increased in recent weeks, suggesting that the group felt increasingly comfortable sharing their vulnerability. For example, while initial conversations focused on general challenges to their work, more recent meetings centred on supporting young people after a fatal stabbing and reflecting on the concept of self-worth and its implications for restorative practice. The practitioner noted that they would not necessarily return to exclusively face-to-face communities of practice after the pandemic so as to maintain the momentum they had built, and also that their group agreed to explore running online support circles for members of their local community in the coming weeks.
A key theme throughout the session was vulnerability. Our discussions raised the question: how might we support people who, during an online meeting, express very serious vulnerability (such as self-harm) or become overwhelmed with emotion? One Irish practitioner had designed a five-step online check in circle that services working with young people could use following traumatic incidents. The framework crucially required at least two facilitators per meeting, ideally who had already built a positive relationship with the young people. The multiple practitioners meant that, in one meeting, a facilitator could take a young person who became overwhelmed to a breakout room, while the other stayed with the larger group; the young person re-joined the group shortly thereafter. The facilitators told the group about this option beforehand and agreed that this was safer than if an overwhelmed person simply left. Another person noted their practice of checking in individually by phone with anyone who becomes distressed during online group meetings, and the importance of taking time to build relationships in advance of delving into difficult issues.
Participants agreed to meet again in a month’s time to discuss the role of restorative justice and practice in the transition to a post-pandemic world. This requires our field to identify the needs that emerge from this transition, and to obtain insights as to how criminal justice and other areas have adapted, and will continue adapting. We should establish with whom and which fields might we collaborate, and where our skills and principles might add the most value.
In the criminal justice context, for example, what could be our role in reducing the criminalisation of unwanted or harmful behaviours during the crisis? Could we enable better access to justice in the context of backlogged courts by mediating many more cases than normal? Might restorative justice help reduce prison populations and support people in custody and their families? What of our role in supporting judges, prison officers and other criminal justice practitioners to reflect on and reconsider their practices more broadly? We should now establish precise goals on which we can cooperate to create tangible benefits and changes in our criminal justice system.
The next discussion will take place on Wednesday 10th June at 10:30 Ireland/12:30 Estonia, when the group will discuss the role of restorative justice and restorative practices in transitioning to a post-pandemic world.