Restorative  Justice in Dunedin

Restorative Justice in Dunedin

Restorative justice is a victim-centric process in which victims meet with their offenders to discuss the crime and its effects. Brittany Mann interviewed three facilitators, as well as an offender and a victim, about their experiences of the process. What she heard were stories of communities being put back together again, one piece at a time.

It was a summery day at the end of January – the kind for which Dunedin is not generally famed, but which nevertheless feature in a disproportionate number of Instagrams. It was around 4:30pm and Xanthe* was driving three friends to the beach. Andersons Bay Road was lined bumper-to-bumper with cars – either it was rush hour, or the rest of Dunedin was headed there, too.

She was in the right-hand lane. The traffic on her left had stopped, but Xanthe was looking ahead to the roundabout and didn’t notice. Nor did she notice a man step onto the pedestrian crossing she was approaching. He was looking the other way and didn’t see her, either. Xanthe wasn’t speeding and she certainly wasn’t driving under the influence. She had never even had a crash before. However, despite slamming on her brakes and swerving, she couldn’t stop in time, and clipped the man’s foot with her tyre. As he lay screaming on the side of the road with what would turn out to be a fractured foot, Xanthe found herself in a position she never dreamt she would be in: having committed a criminal offense.

Xanthe was distraught about the accident. “It was very unintentional,” she explained. “Causing anyone bodily harm goes against everything I believe in, so doing it even accidentally sort of makes you question whether you’re a bad person.” She was charged in court with careless driving causing injury, to which she pled guilty. Her licence was suspended, and she would eventually be ordered to pay the victim, Matthew*, who has an intellectual disability, $1,000 in damages, plus court fees.

Xanthe also requested to meet with Matthew and his family. To her relief, they agreed, and the restorative justice process was set in motion.


Erica* and Shane* are both PhD candidates at Otago University. They are also restorative justice facilitators, and, conveniently for me, Shane’s thesis happens to be on this very topic. He explains: “our understanding of justice finds its context primarily in relationships. Restorative justice processes have taken place throughout history in most indigenous cultures and across many traditions, but in our Western democratic tradition, the primary vehicle of justice is a state-centred court process.”

But these systems we have constructed for ourselves can actually preclude us from expressing our humanity in times of crisis. Shane offers a moving example of this, in which a man was seriously injured when a girl backed into him with her car. Like Xanthe, the girl was not allowed to talk to the victim, despite feeling dreadful and desperately wanting to apologise. For his part, the victim had kids of his own and “really wanted the girl to feel okay.” Shane says that at the conference, before any words were spoken, the first thing the victim did was embrace the offender. “He just wanted to say, ‘look, I recognise that this was an accident, and I don’t want this to negatively change the course of your life.’” Even more amazing was what happened next: “at the end of the conference, the victim said to his offender, ‘I know you’ve got a sentencing coming up in a few days, and I want to be there with you, standing side by side.’”

In this way, restorative justice transforms our traditional justice process by putting the victim at the centre and giving them a voice: they can tell the offender how they have been affected and have a say in how the harm should be repaired. Though restorative justice services in New Zealand are delivered by a range of providers, and thus differ slightly in practice from region to region, the underlying ethos remains the same: to create a space where healing and understanding can happen – on both sides.

Sometimes this is through forgiveness and reconciliation. Sometimes it is through being reassured that the offender did not specifically target their victim. It might even be through being able to ask a question to which only the offender knows the answer. Indeed, Erica had a very sad case in which the widow of a man who had been killed in an accident wanted only to know whether her husband had died right away. “Once she’d heard that, you could see that something changed for her. It wasn’t a blaming thing. It was just a question.”


The Ministry of Justice tender for restorative justice in Dunedin is held by Anglican Family Care, a group with 12 rigorously trained volunteers who act as facilitators. The process begins with a guilty plea – an essential prerequisite for restorative justice – and normally takes place in the three or so weeks between the offender’s initial court appearance and sentencing. Referrals can come from various sources, and once a referral is received Josie Dolan, coordinator of Restorative Justice Otago, assigns two facilitators to the case. One is the leader, and the other plays a transcribing and consultative role. They first contact the victim via mail, and then follow up with a telephone call. Unfortunately, only one in four cases moves past this point.

Though she says that she is always disappointed when victims decline, Josie considers the voluntary nature of the restorative justice process to be one of its strengths, because “it keeps the power with the victim.” Offenders tend to be more interested in participating than victims, because they get credit for doing so. However, while the judge has to take the subsequent report into consideration when deciding a sentence, it is in no way binding. Indeed, it is a mistake to see offenders taking part in the restorative justice process as simply “looking for brownie points in front of the judge.” “It’s only one part of a sentencing package,” Josie explains. “It’s not a magic wand, it’s not for everybody, and it doesn’t eliminate the need for prison.”

Nor is restorative justice the “soft option.” “Some of these offenders think it’s going to be easy, but they’ve never had to apologise to someone they’ve harmed before,” says Josie. “They’re a little embarrassed when they realise how difficult this is, and often they will tell you it was much harder than standing in court before the judge.” She continues: “in court, the conversation happens between the lawyer and the judge – the offender doesn’t have to say anything. But here, you’re standing here alone. And while you might have had the power while you were assaulting someone, or going through someone’s possessions, or taking someone’s car, you’re in a very different position when you’re being held accountable for that behaviour.”

If both parties agree, the facilitators meet with each of them separately for a pre-conference, at which what will happen and what the parties plan to say to each other is discussed. Both are encouraged to write things down, because there is a good chance nerves will result in them drawing mental blanks on the day. If the facilitators feel that the offender is not genuinely remorseful or willing to take responsibility, or the parties have vastly divergent understandings of what happened, then the conference will not go ahead. After all, Josie explains, “we’re not mediators and we’re not lawyers.”

The offender is encouraged to come up with suggestions as to how they can put things right and, for their part, the victim is asked to think about what they want out of the meeting. Perhaps surprisingly, a prison sentence is rarely on their list. Monetary reparations are sometimes called for, but according to Erica, more often that not all the victim wants is an explanation of why they were targeted, a sincere apology and the offender’s reassurance that he or she will not do it again.

On the day of the conference, the facilitators arrive at a neutral venue, arrange the seating and greet the parties separately. Normally, the victim and their support people will arrive first, and depending on the parties’ wishes a karakia or a prayer may be said to initiate proceedings. A summary of facts is read out and each party is asked to present their narrative of events leading up to, and following, the crime. Often the victim wants the offender to speak first, and the conversation goes from there. When all that needs to be said has been, the support people on both sides are invited to share their perceptions of how the crime has affected the parties.

Anger and frustration are allowed. So is silence. Interrupting, however, is not. The facilitators, though not part of the conversation per se, are there to keep things on track, suggest breaks, and even stop proceedings if re-victimisation seems likely. While a certain degree of re-traumatisation is perhaps inevitable in some cases, the benefits of going through the restorative justice process seem to vastly outweigh any costs: in Dunedin, 84 per cent of victims say they are happy they participated.


Indeed, it is a testament to the process that, within hours of posting requests for interviewees online, both a victim and an offender had contacted me, willing to share their stories with a complete stranger. But when you hear what happened with Xanthe and Matthew, it’s not hard to understand why she considers restorative justice such a valuable process. She and her boyfriend met with Matthew, his parents and his carer. Xanthe wanted to apologise, and wanted them to understand that she “really had felt … I mean the word ‘guilty’ doesn’t even cover it … It had affected me very much, and I still thought about him every day.”

“I was very, very nervous,” she recounted. “They wanted me to start, so I said ‘thank you so much for meeting with me, it really means a lot.’ Then I said my thing and made it really clear that it had been a complete accident and it was completely my fault, and I took responsibility for my actions in being careless. And I was very sorry.” Because of Matthew’s disability, Xanthe was advised to keep her piece clear and concise. When she had finished, Matthew’s mother told her how hard Matthew being incapacitated in a wheelchair had been for them all. Though she was honest and didn’t “sugarcoat” anything, Matthew’s mother was very forgiving. “They were really pleased that I’d accepted responsibility for what I’d done,” Xanthe said. “But they didn’t necessarily blame me for being a bad person.”

Matthew then explained to Xanthe that while he had made some “cool new friends” in hospital, he had missed his friends at his job. It was at that point that Matthew proclaimed he was glad he’d made new friends – Xanthe and her boyfriend. “Then we hugged, which was really cool, and we high-fived lots,” she said. “I was sitting there absolutely dying inside because I did not think it was going to go this well. Then he said he hoped he hadn’t injured my car, which shows what a lovely guy he is. I just have so much respect for him. He’s really, really cool.”

Xanthe and her boyfriend have since been to an afternoon tea at Matthew’s house. She took baking, and he showed her his computer games. For Xanthe, restorative justice helped turn an awful experience for everyone involved into one with an incredibly positive outcome: friendship. Obviously, this almost fairytale-like ending is not exactly typical of the restorative justice process. But that is not to say that other outcomes – namely closure – do not impact people’s lives in an equally powerful way.


When I met Sienna*, she arrived on crutches. She was recovering from her latest major surgery – the ninth of 16 surgical procedures she has undergone since a drunk driver failed to stop at a stop sign and T-boned her car. Emergency services had to cut her out of the vehicle; the steering wheel had crushed her leg and her neck was broken.

The offender was her age and was found to be seven times over the legal blood alcohol limit. Sienna did not attend any of his court appearances: following two months in hospital, she spent six months in the Spinal Unit at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, learning how to walk again.

Unlike Xanthe’s, Sienna’s restorative justice conference therefore took place after the offender was convicted of dangerous driving and ordered to pay Sienna $9,000 in damages (which, despite ACC, paled in comparison to the overall financial cost exacted by her accident). He was also disqualified from driving and was given a “huge” number of community service hours.

For weeks before the conference, Sienna was plagued by second thoughts. She even cancelled the meeting several times. “I was pretty nervous about the whole thing,” she said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so I went for worst-case scenario times, like, three. I had images of yelling and crying, and I was expecting to get really mad, because I hadn’t yet. I had been told that it might hit me when I actually saw him.”

Sienna said that on the day, “when he first came in, he asked if it was okay to shake my hand, which was fine.” The offender had written a five-page letter, and gave Sienna a copy before reading it out to her. It was only four months after the accident, and Sienna was still wheelchair-bound and had no feeling in her left leg. “He kept stopping and looking at me, and would just start crying.”

In contrast, Sienna was dry-eyed throughout. “He said he was really, really sorry for the whole incident,” she said. “He said he wished he could take it back; he wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt anyone, he’d been foolish and stupid, and he wished someone had stopped him, but he wasn’t blaming anyone but himself. He said he didn’t want me to forgive him and that he wanted to make it up to me, even though he knew he couldn’t.” The offender told Sienna he had cut out the newspaper article about the accident and kept it in his wallet. When he showed her it, the newsprint had been worn away from being handled so often.

Though she had been asked to tell the offender how the accident had affected her, Sienna found that when the time came, she “didn’t need to do that. He already knew.” When he asked about her injuries, she gave a detailed description, and the significance of her words was not lost on him: at the time of her accident, the offender had been a medical student. Upon his conviction, he had been asked to leave the programme.

When the support people were brought into the room, the offender’s father told Sienna that the trial was the first time he’d ever been ashamed of one of his children. His mother said that they had lost friends and had been called bad parents. Then she asked Sienna why her parents were not in attendance (she had brought a friend along instead). Sienna explained they had been against the idea when she initially raised it with them and, to this day, they have no idea that she went through with it.

So why did she? “In my mind, I rationalised it by thinking, ‘everyone makes mistakes,’” Sienna explained. “His was kind of a big one, but I was willing to hear what he had to say. Hearing his apology made me realise I wasn’t the only victim. You get this idea that there's a car accident and someone’s drunk so it’s blatantly their fault and the other person is this poor victim. And you get this giant label slapped across your forehead, and everyone is so much more upset that you’re hurt because you were hit by a drunk driver, not because you fell down the stairs or were drunk and tripped over. The whole process made me realise how hard it is on the offender as well. I kind of felt like there was a lack of support for him.”

That was almost three years ago, but Sienna recalled that, at the end of the meeting, the offender asked if he could keep in contact with her. “I said I would prefer not to and that I thought it probably wouldn’t be the best thing for him. I thought he should move on.” Sienna told the offender that, “I didn’t want it to be something that he was still thinking about in 20 years’ time.” Indeed, despite his earlier remark, she told him that she forgave him. “I was basically like, I’m going to be fine.”
This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2013.
Posted 4:26pm Sunday 6th October 2013 by Brittany Mann.