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Restorative Justice or Dangerous Liaisons?

This Blog is a reprint of an article in NOTA NEWS 85. The NOTA NEW article is based upon research conducted over a three-year period resulting in a book chapter published in 2017 (Wager & Wilson 2017). The publication of the chapter and its contents also formed the basis of a workshop at last year’s NOTA Conference held in Cardiff.

Nadia Wager (Reader in Criminology, University of Huddersfield)
Chris Wilson
(PhD Student, Cardiff University)

This Blog is a reprint of an article in NOTA NEWS 85. The NOTA NEW article is based upon research conducted over a three-year period resulting in a book chapter published in 2017 (Wager & Wilson 2017). The publication of the chapter and its contents also formed the basis of a workshop at last year’s NOTA Conference held in Cardiff.

It has been a commonly held belief that restorative justice has no place in the field of interpersonal and gender-based violence. However, recently, this widely held orthodoxy has been challenged with the development of a number of small projects that seek to facilitate victim-initiated restorative justice. The positive outcomes for those who have engaged with these projects (Koss, 2014) have led to some practitioners re-evaluating their previously held beliefs on the subject. Evidence of this sea change was seen at the 2015 NOTA National Conference in Dublin, where delegates heard the powerful testimony of both the survivor and practitioner’s experience as to the benefit of such a process. The growing evidence of a positive therapeutic impact relating to victim-initiated restorative justice requires serious consideration for both policy and practice.

In 2002, the UK government funded three Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) pilot sites, introducing the Canadian scheme into the British Criminal Justice System. CoSA is based upon the three restorative principles of repair, stakeholder participation and transformation (Newell, 2007) and seeks to safely reintegrate known sex offenders being released from prison back into the community. It achieves this by recruiting volunteers to represent the local community and support an offender in their acquisition of social capital and realization of the Good Lives Model (Ward and Stewart, 2003). The success of the scheme in the UK was due to its adaptation to work in partnership with the statutory agencies, through the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (McCartan, 2018) and that success can be measured, in part by CoSA’s growth across the UK and Europe. By 2016 there were 16 projects delivering CoSA in England and Wales with projects established in Scotland and 8 other European countries.

Evaluation of the government funded pilot projects highlighted that significant numbers (25%) of its volunteers were survivors of sexual violence (Bates et al., 2007) and that this percentage appeared to be replicated as new projects became operational both in the UK and across Europe. In 2012, Circles UK commissioned work to explore restorative practice that contributed to the wellbeing of the survivor-volunteer. This initially concerned itself with the examination of the attitudes and beliefs of CoSA Coordinators towards this group of volunteers. The methodology used for this was a web-based survey followed by a workshop.

There is no national policy relating to CoSA Coordinators asking volunteers about their potential survivor status, therefore practice is inconsistent. Both the survey and workshop evidenced a collection of strong emotional reactions and opinions from all Coordinators, those in favour and those opposed to asking such a question. Those who did ask the question appeared to have found sensitive ways of doing so, recognising that disclosure may not only be difficult but will come if and when the person is ready. However, those that asked the question perceived it as important to know and saw benefits relating to their duty of care towards the volunteer. Those Coordinators reluctant to ask the question, perceived doing so as too intrusive and insensitive. More concerning however, was that among some existed a belief that to ask such questions could potentially result in opening ‘Pandora’s box.’

What was of interest, whether for or against, was the degree to which some Coordinators pathologised victims of sexual crimes. Such a perspective should not come as a surprise, the majority having previously worked in an environment where pathologising victims of sexual crimes was institutionalised (i.e. it is only relatively recently that it has been argued that such experiences would preclude a person form working on Sex Offender Treatment Programmes for fear of the Prison Service being sued (Brampton, 2010)). It was therefore evident that any further work on this subject needed to promote a Salutogenic (focusing on strengths, coping and resilience) approach (Antonovsky, 1987) challenging this pathological perspective of survivorship.

The next stage of this work was facilitated by the Circles South East project and consisted of a study interviewing 13 volunteers, 5 of whom were survivors, about their motivations and experiences of volunteering for CoSA. The accounts of the survivor-volunteers suggest that they do not enter into their volunteering role as a means to make sense of their own experience, neither is it about a process of self-healing. Rather, they volunteer for CoSA once they have transitioned from victim to survivor or have found a renewed sense of strength or purpose arising from a new life transition or overcoming adversity.

The study’s core theme of ‘resilience and recovery’ highlighted the differing ways in which all volunteers perceived survivorship. Pathologising survivorship was not just restricted to some of the Coordinators but was also evident in the 8 volunteers without first-hand experience of sexual victimisation. They felt that survivorship would have an impact upon the volunteering role and would serve as an intrinsic motivation for volunteering with CoSA. They believed that survivors, unlike themselves, had the potential to be less resilient and more shockable, therefore should be assessed to ensure they have recovered from their experiences. Conversely, the 5 survivor-volunteers did not see their survivor status as defining their identity. For some, the abuse was not deemed to have had a detrimental effect on their well-being and others discussed how they had transitioned from victim to survivor before coming to CoSA. Their expressed motivations for choosing CoSA were similar to all volunteers and, in contrast to seeing themselves as inherently shockable, the survivor-volunteers discussed strategies that they used to maintain their resilience.

The fact that the study was able to evidence the three restorative principles identified by Newell (2007) is testimony to the professionalism and quality of volunteer management and supervision provided by Coordinators and other professionals. Survivors who volunteer with CoSA are afforded the opportunity to objectify aspects of post-traumatic growth, such as compassion and altruism consistent with the principle of repair. Stakeholder participation is realised through the openness to the notion of survivors volunteering for CoSA and the commitment that CoSA has to ensuring that the survivors (as with all volunteers) are appropriately trained and supported. The facilitation of stakeholder participation should lead to a positive change in the way survivors are conceptualised by others, transforming the concept of survivorship into images of strong, resilient, compassionate and self-managing individuals who are fully functioning members of their communities.

The 2017 NOTA Conference workshop provided an opportunity not only to share the findings of this study but also to ask the practical questions of its delegates ‘when does a victim become a survivor?’ And ‘when does the label of survivor no longer apply’? This study highlights the importance of CoSA delivering a fair and balanced service. It cannot be acceptable to state that an offender is more than the sum of his or her offending behaviour and yet to continue to pathologise those who have been victimised. The survivor-volunteer occupies a unique space in CoSA, the dynamic and restorative nature of which we are still yet to fully understand.


Antonovsky A. (1987). Unravelling the mystery of health. How people manage stress and stay well. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass

Bates, A., Saunders, R., & Wilson, C. (2007). Doing something about it: A follow-up study of sex offenders participating in Thames Valley Circles of Support and Accountability. British Journal of Community Justice, 5, 19-42.

Brampton, L.L. (2010). Working with sexual offenders: The training and support needs of SOTP facilitators. PhD Thesis, University of Birmingham.

Koss, M (2014) The RESTORE program of restorative justice for sex crimes: vision, process and outcomes, Journal of Interpersonal Violence Vol 29(9) 1623 – 1660.

McCartan, K (2018). The importance of multi-agency and partnership working in the field of sexual abuse. Confederation European Probation (CEP) Newsletter April 2018


Newell, T. (2007). Forgiving Justice: A Quaker vision for criminal justice. Swarthmore Lecture 2000. London: Quaker Books

Wager, N. & Wilson, C. (2017) Circles of Support and Accountability: Survivors as Volunteers and the Restorative Potential. In M. Keenan, E. Zinsstag and I. Aertsen (eds). Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice. London: Routledge

Ward, T. & Stewart, C. (2003). Criminogenic needs and human needs: A theoretical model. Psychology, Crime and Law, 9, 125 – 143

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