Restorative justice

28 January 2019

Tricia PereiraTricia Pereira and Rachel Quine

While we know that restorative processes work in the criminal justice system – when successful they can enable offenders to stop committing crime, victims to feel more satisfied and everyone affected by harm to heal – we will see that they can have the same impact within social work. In fact, due to this ability to transform, heal and empower, restorative practice is a natural fit with the profession

So what is restorative justice? The Restorative Justice Council defines it as a process where everyone with a stake in a particular incident come together to resolve collectively how to deal with its aftermath and its implications for the future. Howard Zehr, often considered one of the founding fathers of the modern restorative justice movement, describes it as a way of dealing with conflict that recognises harm as a violation of relationships and people, rather than just a violation of the law, with responsibility, reintegration and respect for all being paramount.

Restorative processes are facilitated encounters between people who have caused harm and those affected by that harm, which provide a structure to acknowledge the wrongdoing as well as the damage to relationships, empowering all involved to reflect on how the harm can be repaired and a positive way forward found.

In the UK, there is a growing body of evidence that supports the use of restorative justice in the criminal justice system. The research suggests that it can positively impact on re-offending rates, provide healing for victims and save money. As restorative justice has become more established within the criminal justice system, the increased awareness of the approach means that we now have restorative practice in schools, communities, housing and even the developing idea of restorative cities. In recent years, this interest has extended to the social care arena. Developments in social work practice, such as the Making Safeguarding Personal agenda, the Care Act 2014 and a general trend towards strengths and relationship based practice in adult social care have also encouraged an interest in restorative practice. And perhaps this interest is to be expected given the fit between the aims of social work and restorative practice principles.

Social work is rooted in a set of values and ethics, which guide our practice with the people we work with, whether it be clients, citizens or other professionals. However, there is an inherent tension in social work, where social workers are both expected to be supportive and enable change for the families they work with, while at the same time possessing power and the potential to control. We can see this manifested in social work policy, which prescribes a more controlling or supportive approach depending on the politics of the day – consider managerialism vs the Reclaiming Social Work agenda for example. In their day to day roles, social workers must also manage mini versions of this struggle and consider how to balance their power with the necessary support to enable families to make positive change – because, in essence, social workers are change agents (BASW, 2014).

As a profession, social work promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. (Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills, 2006). This statement is reflected and maintained in the national and international social work Code of Ethics, and the Professional Capabilities Framework (2018), along with the duty to uphold human rights; to promote and support people to seek social justice and redress (Care Act Guidance 2015: 14.94).

Despite this emphasis on social change, sometimes we lack the tools and approaches in social work that make this happen in practice. This is where restorative processes can be of real benefit. With an emphasis on respect and restoration, they are safe spaces where individuals are able to tell their stories, take responsibility and share difficult feelings. Restorative facilitators do not solve the problem; rather the individuals involved are empowered to explore their needs in restoring, repairing and moving on. In this way, restorative processes give social workers the structure to really be able to empower families, while at the same time helping families to develop the skills themselves.

There is a real potential for restorative practice to support transformational change for families – something the social work profession sets out to achieve. But conversations and policy about how this is done, and the ways restorative meetings can be utilised in practice can seem hidden. In the upcoming Knowledge Exchange Workshops, we shall be discussing restorative approaches as a practice framework in social work, exploring the theoretical perspectives, and using examples to explain how the approach can be utilised when practitioners need to address harm that has been caused within the family or adult social care setting. We shall be exploring the values and principles of restorative practice and the key concepts of shame, accountability, interconnectedness and respect:

‘Respect reminds us of our interconnectedness but also our differences. Respect insists that we balance concerns for all parties. If we pursue justice as respect, we will do justice restoratively... The value of respect underlies restorative justice principles and must guide and shape their application.’ (Zehr, 2002 p36)

About the authors

Tricia Pereira is a qualified social worker, practice educator and best interest assessor with over 15 years’ experience spanning adults and children’s social care, and within the voluntary sector. Tricia is a proficient British sign language user, her experience covers social work with deaf and deafblind children and adults, older people and adults with a physical disability. She is an advocate of restorative practice and family group conferences with adults and has led on projects utilising these approaches. Tricia is currently the Principal Social Worker for London Borough of Lewisham and Co-Chair of the National Adults Principal Social Worker Network for England.

Twitter: @triciaapc

Rachel Quine has worked in restorative practice since 2006 in the criminal justice, education and social care fields and is accredited by the Restorative Justice Council as both a practitioner and trainer. She is currently the Restorative Approaches Coordinator at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where she developed and runs the level five Restorative Approaches: Theory and Practice accredited training course. Rachel has recently completed a Masters in Restorative Practice at Ulster University, with her dissertation focused on restorative practice and social work in England.

Related resources

Restorative practice: Knowledge Exchange Workshop

7 February, London: view details 

28 February, Bristol: view details 

3 April, Birmingham: view details

Restorative practice approaches are being increasingly utilised in adult social care. Sitting within the broad concept of strength-based working, this focused Knowledge Exchange Workshop will take an in-depth look at the evidence, practice and implementation of restorative practice in adult social care settings.

Aimed at: Practitioners and managers.


Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills (2006) Options for Excellence: Building the social Care Workforce of the Future. London: Department of Health

Department of Health and Social Care (2018) Care and support statutory guidance.Department of Health and Social Care. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/care-act-statutory-guidance/care-and-support-statutory-guidance

Llewellyn J & Howse R (1998) Restorative Justice: A Conceptual FrameworkAvailable online: http://ow.ly/CSma30ntyzt

Zher H (2015) The little book of Restorative Justice. Goodbooks New York

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