by Ian Marder

On 10th June 2020, the Estonian Social Insurance Board and Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University, Department of Law) organised a third meeting of restorative justice services and practitioners in Europe to talk about their work in the context of COVID-19. Over 25 people from 15 jurisdictions joined to discuss three topics: delivering restorative justice during COVID-19; readying restorative justice services to recommence face-to-face work; and the need for organisations of all types to use restorative practices to support their staff when returning to the workplace.

Online meeting

Delivering restorative justice during COVID-19

The group heard from Dana Henderson, Programme Manager with Longmont Community Justice Partnership (LCJP) in Colorado, who kindly joined the meeting despite it taking place late at night in her time zone. The group learned much about the speed with which LCJP organised the delivery of restorative videoconferences, and the sophistication of their online model of practice.

LCJP has six staff and 40 volunteer facilitators, and receives most of their referrals from the police. They pulled together resources from around their community to support them to set up an online service. For example, police partners helped them to consider safety considerations and technical questions. The first online conference took place in April and involved 13 persons, including three who were responsible for harm. They have since delivered around 20 online conferences. 

In advance of doing so was a long, detailed process to train and support volunteers, think through conceptual issues, and establish infrastructure and a safe practice model. The key principle was to keep it all as simple as possible, ensuring that technology did not complicate matters or distract the parties from speaking and listening to each other. Considerations included:

  •  One-on-one training with volunteer facilitators to ensure that they were comfortable with the digital platform.
  • Staff co-facilitated the conferences initially, before the first volunteer-led conference took place two months after lockdown. Now, a member of staff still always attends ten minutes of each online conference to ensure that there are no technical glitches.
  • A ‘digital confidentiality’ form is used to show clients that LCJP do their best to take care of them and to introduce norms and expectations for all parties that enable accountability later on in the process.
  • Writing a ‘technological preamble’ as part of the conferencing script which asks people to switch to gallery view (on Zoom), to keep their microphones on so that they do not have to fiddle with turning them on and off, and hiding self-view so that they are not distracted. This also allows clear expectations to be set and managed. For example, it is stated at this point that a facilitator will always check in with anyone who appears distracted.
  • Zoom was selected because it is the most straightforward tool for people with a low level of digital proficiency and access – not least, as it was being used by schools locally.
  • They set up a facilitator email account so that all facilitators could access documents in a shared and secure space. Before this, there was no specific space for facilitators to relate to, in the manner that they usually related to their office.
  • Debriefs with the facilitators indicated a number of differences between online and face-to-face facilitation. Some cues on which we rely in face-to-face practice (e.g. eye contact) do not work online. Facilitators learned to switch to verbal cues, such as saying someone’s name to indicate when they may speak. Other ways of managing this challenge included naming everyone on the screen and giving each person a number to indicate the speaking order, so that people feel safe in the knowledge that they will have their turn. Such tactics were integrated into their training as they were identified.
  • Online conferencing created a physical and visceral disconnect that meant that facilitators had to work harder than usual to build relationships. Yet, facilitators felt that the emotion that could best be expressed online is curiosity. This meant that the online platform was suited to open ended, affective questions. In addition, they found that people affected by high impact offences sometimes felt a sense of protection because they were not actually in a room with the other person. This distance may be more or less helpful, depending on the personality and needs of the people involved in the process.
  • There were valuable times when a participant’s humanity added to conferences, such as when a police officer’s child entered the room. Further, that one could see into everyone’s homes provided staff with an opportunity to discuss biases with their volunteers, working through these questions as part of their facilitator debriefs. 
  • This is still an ongoing learning process, requiring constant revision and refining.

Going forward, LCJP decided to continue conducting videoconferences because they developed a system that works, and because limiting face-to-face contact remains the best way to protect community safety. Moreover, if the alternative were to meet physically and wear masks, online approaches might still be preferable so that everyone can see faces and read facial cues.

After Dana, Prof. Meredith Rossner from ANU in Australia spoke about the connections between what Dana said and her own research on digital court hearings. She found three particular areas that echoed her research. Firstly, the ‘journey’ to ‘enter the room’ is important. Those who were developing online court hearings likewise considered how many screens one must click through ‘on the way in,’ and used a virtual waiting room and various primers, including a countdown clock that was controlled by the judge and other materials to prepare people to engage with the digital platform. Secondly, her research found that judges could not use eye contact online to let people know that it was their turn to speak. This meant that the judges used people’s names more often than they would have done in physical court, which received widespread positive feedback in the research. Thirdly, judges reported feeling more tired after online hearings than physical hearings, not least because the active facilitation role was more draining and fatiguing, as was looking at and being on the screen. At this point, Dana noted that LCJP introduced a five-minute break to all online conferences in which parties turn off their audio and cameras; they intend to integrate this into their face-to-face practice. Finally, Meredith said that she and her colleagues wanted to conduct further research on restorative justice and COVID-19. They hope to look at both macro questions about how the movement is evolving in this environment, and micro questions around the practical dynamics of online practice and practitioners’ reflections thereof. 

Next, Deborah Watters, Co-Director of Northern Ireland Alternatives, spoke about their outdoor mediation practice during COVID-19. She noted that her organisation was well-embedded in local communities due to their history of emerging from the conflict. As such, many of their referrals come from schools or the community, or involve neighbourhood disputes referred by the police. They work with thousands of families every week, and found that their clients were not in a place to engage in mediation until their basic needs were met. This meant that Alternatives invested a considerable amount of resources in supporting local communities with food and prescriptions, and troubleshooting various community problems.

In addition to their online cases, Debbie explained, they had done much face-to-face – but socially distanced – work in recent weeks. This involved a combination of ‘doorstep conversations’ and ‘front garden’ or ‘back garden’ mediation. Some of their offices had outdoor space that allowed for social distancing, and were conducive to privacy and confidentiality. This means that they can play a role in responding to the rise – in both number and level of escalation – in neighbourhood conflict, as people take their anxiety and frustration out on neighbours. Luckily, their relationship with the police meant that many of these cases which may have resulted in enforcement action, were instead referred to them for mediation. Debbie also said that, for community organisations like hers, it was difficult to respond quickly to community needs and establish a clear framework around their practice at the same time – as in Colorado, their work in this regard was ongoing. 

Readying restorative justice services for a return to face-to-face work

Peter Keeley from Restorative Justice Services in Dublin spoke about his organisation’s activities to get ready for face-to-face work. His organisation has a staff of six and a number of community volunteers who chair offender reparation panels in cases referred by the criminal courts.

In order to resume the service safely, they established a working group with representatives from each part of the service (a volunteer, a caseworker, a board member, etc.). The metaphor Peter used was that of the ‘1000 piece jigsaw,’ with every piece attached to other pieces, and all equally required to complete the whole. Drawing on governmental return-to-work protocols and on the overriding principle of public and personal safety, the working group wrote a draft plan for their service that sought to handle operational, logistical and health and safety issues. This included a range of considerations, such as:

Kseniia Ilinykh's photo: Hand Sanitiser Distribution Station


  • the physical configuration of their offices, including a new floor plan and the consequent removal and/or redistribution of office furniture;
  • the introduction and strategic location of hand sanitizers and floor markings, the latter of which are intentionally devoid of numbers (e.g. ‘2 metres’) in case regulations change;
  • the installation of a computer screen to allow for mixed physical-online meetings in case some people wish to or are able to come to the office and other are not;
  • the development of a daily opening and closing regime to be conducted by the first person to arrive and the last person to leave;
  • the allocation of office supplies to individuals to avoid close contact or sharing;
  • the use of shared spaces in the organisation’s own offices, and in the building as a whole, which is shared with other organisations;
  • and protocols for their clients that focused on hygiene and personal safety and included a range of eventualities depending on choices clients make, such as wearing masks or not.

These plans will be sent out to consultation by staff and partners who work with the organisation, before being finalised. This consultation is crucial to ensure that stakeholders are happy with the plan, and that all bases have been covered from all angles. The group thanked Peter for the level of detail he provided, given that all organisations require similar exercises to return to the office.

A hopscotch

Using restorative practices to support staff to return to the workplace

The final topic was about how organisations of all kinds can use restorative practices to support their staff and clients/service users to transition to a post-lockdown world. Dr. Belinda Hopkins and her colleagues collaborated on a new website – Restore Our Schools – which outlines a model that highlights seven areas to stimulate thinking and make decisions about moving forward into a healthy ‘new normal’. The seven areas are: recognition, empathy, safety, trauma, opportunity, relationships and engagement.

It was noted that, although the model had been developed for schools, it applied equally to any organisation. Belinda reminder the group that now, more than ever, the restorative philosophy, skills and principles are vital. A rush to ‘go back to normal’ ignores the fact that what is ‘normal’ has significantly changed for leaders, staff and citizens across all human services. Everyone has been affected, and the skills that restorative practitioners bring to human interaction are crucial at this time. We all have emotional and mental health needs that must be addressed in order to get back into the workplace, and restorative circles and restorative inquiry are ideal mechanisms to enable people to have these necessary conversations.

People with experience of using circles during and in transitioning out of the lockdown seconded this point. In Estonia, for example, the Social Insurance Board is delivering both online and face-to-face circles (with masks) for a range of public services. They adjust their questions depending on who is present, aiming to provide a space to come together and reflect. 

Others commented that all organisations should put in place sensitive, sympathetic processes to allow staff to make the transition and deal with loss, and prevent people from repressing difficult experiences. It was noted that, in the criminal justice context, these problems might be acute for people who went out to work the entire time, such as prison and police officers. One English local authority initiated ‘listening teams’, for which a member of staff is trained to facilitate circles that focus on what life has been like for people. Those staff will also be available for one-on-one drop in sessions. Likewise, people working in Wales found that wellbeing circles were a fantastic space to give people reassurance that they are not alone, and to help people regain the connectedness that they had lost and missed in recent months.