I had asked, again, whatever happened to community restorative justice? In particular in the North West? And now we have an answer – the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) has issued a new report [pdf file]. “Fieldwork for this inspection was done in the week beginning 31 March 2008.”
The report warned that schemes must be monitored closely and an independent complaints mechanism put in place. Subject to those points, the balance between risks and opportunities has moved in favour of the schemes, and we recommend that they should now be accredited, it said.
a. The pattern of work
Inspectors examined all the case notes kept by the schemes since roughly the time of the last inspection. Without attempting a detailed analysis, it appeared that in both areas there had been a slight reduction in the volume of cases handled, perhaps reflecting the fact that CRJI was now advising clients upfront of the rules which the schemes had to observe. In Belfast there was still a substantial element of criminal business, but in Derry/Londonderry the criminal content of the caseload seemed to have declined. In both locations criminal cases were being referred to the PSNI. The overwhelming majority of cases in the NorthWest related to neighbour and family disputes, rubbish, nuisance, vandalism, dogs, debts, employment and landlord and tenant issues.
The schemes did not always record the lowest level of incidents in which they became involved. A feature of the schemes there is that the volunteers are often employed in other, related capacities, for example as community workers or youth workers, and it is often unclear in what capacity they have dealt with a case.
In Belfast, two of the schemes have been particularly hampered by the lack of funding, and that has had an impact on their work. Hopefully once accreditation is achieved and funding becomes available, the planning blight occasioned by the uncertainty over accreditation and about what the Protocol would mean in practice will be overcome and the schemes will regain their momentum.
And on relations with the police
In both Belfast and Derry/Londonderry relations with the police have improved steadily. Within Greater Belfast, the Colin/Twinbrook scheme has led the way in developing a strong personal relationship with police officers, which both parties have found extremely productive. A police officer in Lisburn told Inspectors,The schemes are behaving like good citizens. Relations with the schemes in Belfast itself have been more restricted on both sides, with contacts passing through a limited number of officers, but there has been a steady increase in communication.
In Derry/Londonderrry there have been an increasing number of contacts, with representatives of the schemes and police officers phoning each other several times a week, but the approach has been cautious and slightly arms length. Inspectors are confident that once the schemes are accredited a wider range of police officers will feel comfortable about relating to the schemes. Staff and volunteers in the schemes generally have no difficulty about talking to the police now, but they are conscious that there is still a wide range of opinions within their communities and they feel that they need to move carefully to avoid losing their local credibility. This can be seen by the police as the schemes picking and choosing the issues on which they want to engage, but the police understand that this is part of a process which the schemes have to manage.
Local police officers in all the three Police Districts concerned are broadly supportive of accreditation. They accept that the schemes are behaving correctly, and they find them valuable as a channel into the community in a variety of difficult situations for example, when they are going to have to move in to an area in force to investigate a suspicious death or reconstruct a murder. They said that the schemes had opened doors and facilitated contacts they would not otherwise have had. They would like the schemes to be clearer and more explicit in reporting information to them, but they recognise that their appetite for information is limitless and that the practice will have to evolve over time. They are conscious that a number of young people in Republican areas are tending to identify with the dissidents, and they regard the schemes as allies on the side of law and order in that context. [added emphasis]
And on Scope for Further Improvement
We repeat the recommendation that the schemes should aim to re-present themselves to emphasise that they are not politically aligned. If they gain accreditation that will provide a good opportunity for such an initiative. [added emphasis]