BC solicitor general plans to expand restorative justice throughout province

  • August 14, 2017

By Amanda Jerome for The Lawyer’s Daily

Mike Farnworth, British Columbia’s new solicitor general and the minister of Public Safety, has decided to make province-wide restorative justice a priority.

“Restorative justice provides victims of certain types of crimes greater participation in the justice system and makes offenders more accountable for their actions,” he said in a statement to The Lawyer’s Daily.

“We have seen restorative justice work in community programs in B.C. and in other jurisdictions,” he added.

Farnworth said it’s too soon to know when and how restorative justice programs will be expanded, but he wants to ensure everyone in the province has access to it. 

Restorative justice has been a part of the B.C. justice system since the late 1970s with the creation of the Community Accountability Programs.

The president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA), Michael Welsh, said the CBA has been in support of restorative justice for many years because of its potential of resolving criminal cases in a way that can be more satisfactory for the victim, the offender and society as a whole.

“We’re very pleased that the solicitor general is looking at expanding restorative justice. We called for just that in the lead-up to the [recent] election in B.C.,” he said, adding that at that time the CBA released 30 proposals for improving the justice system and that restorative justice was one of its main objectives.

Welsh said the CBA would like the government to put its efforts into supporting the 45 Community Accountability Programs that already exist as they are underfunded and underutilized.

“They are largely volunteer-driven and receive minimal funding from the province,” he said, adding that the programs receive $5,000 as a startup amount and then get about $2,500 every year after that to maintain operations.

“These programs are currently restricted to taking referrals from local police detachments and are only for people who the police think would do better through some sort of restorative justice initiative. What these programs cannot do, right now, is take referrals from the prosecution.”

Welsh explained that sometimes a prosecutor, on looking over a file, will decide that it makes sense to have an offender diverted and put through a restorative justice program. However, referrals to the Community Accountability Programs are not possible right now because they’re not designated as alternative measures under the Criminal Code.

“Part of that, we believe, is that there’s an issue around the fact that they are not funded to the point where they can actually have employed professionals. Restorative justice facilitators have to rely on volunteers and there’s a variety in terms of training and expertise amongst them,” he said.

Welsh said the CBA has called on the government to properly fund those initiatives at the community level and provide consistent training throughout so that they are at a point where they can be designated as alternative measures under s. 717(1) of the Criminal Code.

Welsh said research has shown that restorative justice leads to better outcomes and decreases the chance of repeat offenders.

“Back in 2012, the Attorney General [Shirley Bond], retained a lawyer in Vancouver, Geoffrey Cowper, to hold a number of hearings and do research to come up with proposals for initiatives that would reform the justice system to make it more efficient,” said Welsh, adding that one of the initiatives Cowper strongly advocated for was restorative justice.

“It [restorative justice] pulls a number of [people] out of the justice system, relieves some of the pressure on the court system, and we deal with it [the offence] through a way that can bring a better resolution,” he said.

Welsh said restorative justice gives offenders an opportunity to personally take responsibility for their actions and for the victim to feel like they are part of the justice process.

“In the traditional justice system, the victim is a witness that has no voice in the proceedings, other than being able to file a victim impact statement. And those victim impact statements, a lot of time, the accused doesn’t even read them. So they never really get the sense of what the effect has been on the victim,” he said.

Welsh said that if B.C. can involve, in appropriate cases, the offender, the victim and the facilitator from the community in a process where they can work together to decide what the consequences are going to be it will be beneficial to all involved.

“It allows the community to be part of it [the resolution] and really get a better understanding of how the justice system is working, which often isn’t the case when you just read reports about what happens in court,” he said.

Welsh said the funding and work required to establish restorative justice programs province-wide will depend on the type of model the government decides to use.

“There are more than one type of justice programs. There are victim-offender reconciliation, which is mediation essentially. There are community programs which include community groups that meet with the offender and the victim. There are a number of different models that are used around the world. So they’ll have to determine which model they want to use and from there they’ll still have to work out what the training and supports are going to be,” he said.