Why stories matter

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Author: 
Jon Collins
Date: 
16 January 2017

Last week, a Westminster Hall debate was held on the report of last year’s Justice Select Committee inquiry on restorative justice. For readers not familiar with the intricacies of parliamentary procedure, Westminster Hall debates provide an opportunity for MPs to debate an issue and get a response from a government minister. While they may not directly lead to change, they do provide an update on the government’s views.

The debate reminded me of giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee last year. To help me prepare, my brilliant colleagues spent hours collating a comprehensive briefing on every imaginable fact and figure. Evidence was summarised into accessible bullets, policy lines were finely honed, and controversial issues were set out for discussion. In turn, I spent hours learning the key points and preparing the answers to likely questions. I’m sure I wasn’t the only witness to do so.

One of the most controversial issues, and one that we knew would come up, was the use of restorative justice in cases involving domestic abuse. The RJC’s position is clear – victims of domestic abuse should not automatically be denied access restorative justice if it can be delivered safely and they want to take part. While safety is paramount, excluding victims from restorative justice solely because of the type of offence that they have experienced is neither fair nor appropriate.

This is an area, however, where there is some disagreement and we knew that there would be some dissenting voices among the other witnesses and, in all likelihood, among committee members. The issue, then, was in how to illustrate exactly how taking part in restorative justice can benefit victims of domestic abuse.

To help me to do this, I noted down a quote from Emma, who took part in restorative justice after being raped by her former partner. Discussing its impact, she said:

“When I walked out of that meeting, I felt as if I could knock out Mike Tyson – I could have taken on anything or anyone. In the days and weeks afterwards, it was as if a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d been carrying it for so long that I didn’t even notice it any more, so when it disappeared, it was amazing. I felt completely empowered”

At an appropriate point in the evidence session, I read Emma’s words to the Committee. Amid the facts and figures it stood out. It was as clear an articulation of the impact of restorative justice as you’re likely to hear, a simple explanation of its benefits from somebody who had experienced it first-hand. It had a noticeable impact - a number of attendees literally sat up and took notice.

That quote found its way into the Justice Select Committee’s report as an illustration of why restorative justice should be made available to victims of every type of crime. And it was mentioned by three speakers in last week’s debate, including the Ministry of Justice minister Sir Oliver Heald. It had undoubtedly registered with those who had seen or heard it.

What this demonstrates, I think, is that it is the individual stories of participants which really catch people’s attention. I’m as big a policy nerd as there is - I love data and evidence, facts and figures, so it pains me to say this. But when it comes to convincing people of the benefits of restorative justice, stories matter. The story of somebody who has been through the process will convince people in a way I never could, no matter how robust the data.

So what? That stories are more impactful than statistics is communications 101, hardly revelatory. But the fact remains that now – arguably more than in recent years – restorative justice appears to be fighting for political prominence. Nobody argues that it’s not a good thing – the Westminster Hall debate showed that politicians are united in support of its greater use. But that’s not enough. Restorative justice needs to be a priority if it’s going to flourish, not a benign afterthought.

It’s part of the RJC’s job, of course, to make sure that it is. To ensure that politicians and policy makers don’t just passively support the use of restorative justice but are actively taking steps to increase its availability. And the stories of people who have participated in restorative justice are what will help us to do that.

That means, though, that we need something from you in turn. If you have yourself have taken part in restorative justice and would consider sharing your story with us, then please get in touch. And if you are a practitioner who has worked on cases that could help us to make a difference then please share them with us. That will help us to do our job, which will in turn help restorative justice to develop and thrive.

If you would like to share your experience of restorative justice with us, please email Safi Schlicht.