Training in Belgium – Accessibility and Initiation project

“Accessibility and Initiation of Restorative Justice”
Fifth training seminar
Leuven, Belgium
May 14-15, 2014

The series of five trainings within the “Accessibility and Initiation of Restorative Justice” project was concluded with a two-day event for legal practitioners.

The workshop gathered 30 participants, from Belgium, Croatia, France, Italy, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, Sweden, and UK with diverse experiences and expertise, such as barrister, public prosecutor, judge, prison chaplain, criminologist, probation officer. The institution they represented were also very diverse,  from mediation centers to prisons, police force, court, several universities and research institutes.

The training started with the presentation of the “Accessibility and Initiation of Restorative Justice” project  by Malini Laxminarayan, the EFRJ research coordinator, which has highlighted the different factors that impede or assist parties to access mediation services, and that stimulate or discourage parties to begin the mediation procedure.

Leo Van Garsse,  from Gent University (Belgium), spoke on the factors that should be taken into account when deliberating on the best strategies to introduce and develop restorative justice in a specific country.“There is a lot to learn from your clients, and those who will support you in the process will also need to be involved”, he said.  He also clarified that a “best practice” is not necessarily the best for everyone: “I wouldn’t say best practice, I would say – promising practice”. The discussion on such topics started during Van Garsse´s  presentation and it continued afterwards during the small group exercises, when each of the small groups was assigned to prepare for a meeting with a different group of stakeholders: public prosecutors, victim assistants, lawyers and police officers.

In the afternoon, Annemieke Wolthuis, one of the project partners  from The Netherlands, interviewed a former public prosecutor from Belgium, Marleen Scevenels, on her insights on effective strategies to establish trust and promote mediation to the public prosecutors, such as informal meetings and participation in steering groups on the local level. Scevenels also shared some thoughts which stimulated long discussions among participants, such as how many details from a mediation process should be revealed to judges or prosecutors: “I think if the judges and prosecutors see more details on mediation, they would be more convinced about its  usefulness”.   In the discussion that followed, differences of participants’ backgrounds were disclosed by their different positions on whether informal meetings and communication might imply potential for corruption, as it would, for example, in Italy and in Poland.

Charlotte Calkin, mediator and trainer from the RJ Council in the UK, concluded the first day with the role-play of a RJ conference: with Calkin as a facilitator, five participants played the role of the victim, her father, the co-facilitator, the offender and his girlfriend. RJ conferences are used by Calkin during the trainings she provides to magistrates in the UK in order to raise awareness about RJ practices. Once the role-play was concluded, participants who observed it started an interesting nice discussion, not so much on this exercise as a strategy for raising awareness, but mostly on the RJ process itself. The first day finished with a social dinner in a local restaurant from Leuven.

Calkin also welcomed participants on the second day of the training. She shared her experience at “Why me?”, an organization founded by a victim of burglary and his offender after participating in a RJ process. Their lives have taken a new path during victim-offender mediation and their experiences, recorded in the short movie “The Woolf Within”, are often used for promoting RJ practices. Calkin also shared her mediator´s experience by presenting different techniques to make the offer of RJ effective to initiate a RJ process. First in small groups and then in peers, participants had the opportunity to discuss real cases and reflect on the best methods to approach the parties and interview the victim.

The afternoon was concluded by Kristel Buntinx, mediator and trainer from Suggnomè (Belgium). Buntinx contributed to the previous discussions on how to initiate a RJ process by speaking about the letter which is sent to the parties to inform and invite them to consider to take part in a RJ process. In the exercise, the different groups have been assigned the task to write the “best letter” for offering RJ either to a victim or to an offender.  The groups´ presentations on the letter have been complemented by Buntinx´s mediating experiences in murder cases and sexual offences. Her presentation was filled with stories and examples of real cases, which made participants even more aware about the power and benefits of RJ. In particular, she focused on the importance to leave the parties free to decide and to move the responsibility to them:  “When I went to pick [the victim] up to go together to the prison, the woman had her doubts on whether she should meet the perpetrator and talk to him. On each crossroad, I asked her whether I should continue or turn back. This gave her feeling to have the control on everything which would have happened. We arrived to the prison and the mediation process took place. At the end, she was glad she did it.”

At the end of the two-day training, many participants asked the EFRJ staff to repeat this type of events on yearly basis: they are useful to share ideas and experiences, learn new skills and increase their professional network. The EFRJ will surely try its best to make these wishes come true. For now, the EFRJ staff is happy to meet again some participants in next event of the EFRJ: its 8th international conference in Belfast (11-14 June)!