News + Views

Open Circle and Restorative Justice During Covid-19

Restorative justice services around the world are being impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak and are developing their responses accordingly. At Open Circle, we too are working hard to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances, whilst continuing to provide quality restorative justice processes to our community. The safety of service users and staff is of paramount importance to us.

Our team is therefore working from home for now, with all face-to-face meetings on hold until further notice. While the embodied component of our service is not possible under the current circumstances, we remain engaged in various other forms of contact with participants, stakeholders and the broader restorative justice community.

At Open Circle we continue to welcome new referrals and remain in touch with our current service users via telephone, email, letter exchange and videoconference (where possible and appropriate). For example, prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, we had completed the preparation phase of work in a matter that involved very significant harm, with the aim of bringing all parties together. Unfortunately, by the time participants were ready to proceed to a restorative conference, face-to-face meetings were no longer possible. Pausing or delaying the nuanced and tender process we had embarked upon felt very disappointing to all involved. After conversations with the participants, where we unpacked the risks and benefits of proceeding in various ways, both parties decided to continue working with Open Circle facilitators remotely. We have since assisted one of the participants to write a letter expressing his sadness and remorse in relation to the harm caused. We remain in regular contact with all participants to ensure that the important work already accomplished feels honoured, acknowledged and built upon.

During this unprecedented time of global uncertainty, a number of other challenges have emerged that impact our work.  One of these challenges is that our access to participants who are serving sentences of imprisonment in custody is now very limited. With the exception of ‘essential services’, all visits to custodial facilities are currently suspended to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Contact with service users living in the community is also limited to remote communication, including digital platforms.

Of course, it’s important to note that access to technology, online communication and computer literacy are major barriers for some members of the community. Not all individuals have the technical capability to ‘go digital’ – nor will they in the foreseeable future. Additionally, using technology for communication means that we lose access, at least partially, to important cues such as eye contact and body language, which are crucial in restorative communication. This can have implications for the quality and safety of the service provided. As facilitators, our capacity to convene complex conversations, in real time, with multiple people is very much impaired when each participant is in a different location, brought together as sound and image on a shared screen. This fragmentation can be further exacerbated by potential issues with sound and picture quality, delays and drop-outs. There are also issues of privacy and security for participants and those facilitating or convening meetings when working online.

Open Circle is committed to carefully working through these challenges, while continuing to provide restorative justice processes during this time. Our approach is to work with service users to identify and respond to the risks as well as the potential benefits of audio-visual technologies. All service users are consulted on how they would like their cases progressed and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Where online approaches are appropriate, we provide participants with support in navigating and accessing virtual meetings, guidance on clearing browser or call history and ensuring back-up technologies are in place should meetings be disrupted. In order to mitigate the communication and safety issues that arise with audio-visual conferencing in complex matters, we are looking to video and letter exchanges as powerful alternatives. However, we have found that much of the important and valuable preparatory work that is part of our core business does not require face-to-face participation and can be conducted very effectively via telephone or video conferencing.

Alongside the work of direct service provision, we have been busy sharing our experience, and contributing to strong communities of practice, both within Australia and abroad. These connections will no-doubt support our ability to continue to adapt and innovate our practice during the time of COVID-19 and into the future. We are especially interested in establishing enduring partnerships with individuals and organisations working with people who have been harmed and people who have caused harm. Should you wish to know more about the work we do, we welcome any inquiries, secondary consultations or requests to present information about our services to your organization or team. We invite you to work with us towards broader community understanding of, and access to restorative justice, so that the benefits of these approaches are more widely available to meet the diverse needs of our communities.

Keep an eye out for Open Circle’s next blog post on the role of restorative practices in a post Covid-19 world.

Asia Swida, Restorative Justice Convener, Open Circle