‘Dialogue is not a soft option’

Eddie Mulhern tells Derren Hayes how introducing restorative justice in Scottish schools could mesh with the wider youth justice agenda

2005: Seconded for two years as restorative justice coordinator at West Dunbartonshire.
1995: Senior group worker, West Dunbartonshire Council.
1990: Group worker in Glasgow for children with emotional difficulties in the Children’s Hearing system.
1986: Residential worker at an assessment centre in Strathclyde.

Eddie Mulhern has spent 20 years in social work and has never been so convinced about the value of a project than the one he is currently involved in.

Mulhern, restorative justice coordinator at West Dunbartonshire Council, is leading on a joint initiative between the council and crime reduction organisation Sacro that aims to address offending by young people through creating a dialogue between them and the victims of their actions.

Elements of this approach, which was pioneered in the US and Australia, have already been incorporated into criminal law with victims and their families now able to meet the perpetrators and tell courts about the impact of a crime. But it is still in its infancy in youth justice.

The West Dunbartonshire project is half way through a two-year pilot being run at a secondary school and a pupil referral unit. Teachers trained as mediators have overseen six cases in each location, ranging from assaults on teachers to bullying of Mulhern explains how it works:

“It’s a voluntary process, if either party doesn’t want to take part then fair enough. When they do take part both sides attend a conference with a support worker and explain why an action was committed and the effects it has had.”

The process can also be carried out through “shuttle dialogue” where notes are passed between the two parties. At the end of the process an agreement is drawn up that includes an apology and a pledge that the offence will not happen again.

Some argue restorative justice is a soft approach to tackling youth offending and the promises made are hollow ones, but Mulhern rejects this. “I’m not suggesting this has all the answers and that perpetrators won’t go on to hurt someone again.

It’s not an easy thing for either party as it starts off with a lot of anger.

The person harmed gets a chance to obtain answers as to why they were hurt, which helps those responsible take accountability for their actions. “Often they haven’t had a chance to think about their actions and have sidestepped considering how they have hurt someone. In some complex cases, empathy for others isn’t there but this can help build that.”

And Mulhern says participants have generally had positive experiences. “The feedback from victims is very good. In one  example, teachers were concerned about being in the same class as a particular pupil, but after going through the process
they realised the young person genuinely wanted to right the harm they’d done.”

Although still only a pilot, Mulhern is confident the scheme will be rolled out across the council’s secondary schools and possibly into primary schools too.

He believes restorative justice also addresses two major policy priorities of the UK government and Scottish executive: it gives victims a voice and looks at new ways of addressing antisocial and offending behaviour.

“It helps victims put the incident behind them and says to the perpetrators ‘we want to have you back in the community but you have to change’,” he explains.

Prevention is a key word for ministers at the moment and they are keen to develop schemes that can be shown to reduce the risk of a school bully becoming a repeat young offender.

But Mulhern says restorative justice has wider benefits. “Its success can’t be measured in terms of reducing offending. Those involved say it is about repairing harm. Reducing offending is a spin-off benefit.”

Related articles
Scotland Focus

● Eddie Mulhern will be speaking about the project at CCLive Scotland on 2 November

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.