The latest progress report for the Adult Restorative Justice Strategy reports that the lack of political leadership and funding cuts have meant that key targets for restorative justice have not been implemented as planned.
The Department of Justice has been operating without political leadership since October 2022, meaning that civil servants are being left with the task of implementing policies which may require review.
The Adult Restorative Justice Strategy was released by the then-outgoing Minister for Justice, Naomi Long MLA, prior to the collapse of the Executive due to the DUP’s boycott of the institutions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The inability of the Department to proceed as planned is acknowledged in the progress report itself, with the Department outlining that the lack of a minister and Executive over the second part of the year should be seen as “mitigating circumstances”, as this meant that some decisions were delayed or postponed, and the comprehensive review of the Protocol took far longer than initially projected.
“The current financial climate has meant that baselines across government are under increasing pressure, seemingly with no good news on the horizon.”
A further “mitigating circumstance” stated by the Department of Justice to progress was the finite resources associated with the Strategy, both in terms of staffing and funding.
“There is clearly a need for secure, long-term funding for restorative justice: lack of funding was recognised by the Fresh Start Panel as a major factor inhibiting the expansion of restorative approaches, hence their recommendation A9 around the creation of a dedicated fund for this work, which was also to be used as the source of funding for the creation and operation of a centre of restorative excellence,” the report states.
To date, this fund is yet to be established, which the Department says restricts the potential for strategic and innovative developments from being established and upscaled. “The current financial climate has meant that baselines across government are under increasing pressure, seemingly with no good news on the horizon,” the report asserts.
Although there is a broad level of dissatisfaction at progress thus far, the Department insists that the underlying principles of restorative justice remain the best path forward for the sector in Northern Ireland, with victim engagement and satisfaction in the process was seen by the majority of stakeholders as the most important factor to measuring success. However, the report notes that a successful restorative justice system is one which balances the needs of victims, offenders, and the community.
The report also cites a number of other measures which “could be useful to focus on,” including increased referral numbers; reduction in court cases and admissions to custody; improved public confidence; and changes in behaviour or reoffending.
The report states that, while the original strategy was supposed to be a final document, that the action plan is a living and breathing document. Success and progress have been limited, as acknowledged by the Department itself. Decision-makers await the return of political leadership to the Department of Justice in order to provide vision, rather than what can be a characterised as continuous firefighting by senior civil servants.
Central to this, upon the future return of an Executive, will be an increase of funding to the Department of Justice, especially given the disparity in funding allocated to the local department and the UK Ministry of Justice, with the UK ministry receiving an increase in funding of almost £4 billion since 2020, whilst the “punishment budget” for Northern Ireland saw the Department of Justice lose 1.7 per cent of its real terms funding.
Questions remain as to when this will happen. The DUP, in addition to its stance on the Windsor Framework, has also used its Stormont boycott to call for a reform of the Barnett formula and an increase in the Northern Ireland budget. Despite this effort, the party’s ongoing absence, especially given the arguably cynical approach to funding being adopted by the Northern Ireland Secretary, mean that, in the immediate term, department officials will have to continue adopting policies which cannot be updated with the political leadership and funding necessary for success.