I have been invited by RJ Online to be a regular correspondent. I will be an unfamiliar name to most of you – a voice from New Zealand, a small nation in the South Pacific. While my contribution to restorative justice pales in comparison to the giants of restorative justice, (Howard Zehr and Dan Van Ness come to mind), I take refuge in the Maori proverb, “Naku rourou, noku rourou, ka ora te iwi” – “It is through my contribution and your contribution, that the people will achieve well-being”.
In the western world the initial encounter with a newcomer, following the exchange of names, is the question, “What do you do?” It is a polite way of assessing the newcomer’s social status, educational levels, and income. In the Maori world, of which I am part, the question is no less intrusive, but seeks different information. The question, “No whea koe?” or “Where are you from?” is not about where you live. The response is expected to provide information about one’s tribal affiliation, genealogy, and ‘mana atua’ – God-given status. We exist within that primary context. Over time, an individual establishes their ‘mana tangata’ within the community, i.e. ones’ personal contribution to the larger world in the shape of achievements, content of character, and value to the wider community.
I cannot present myself as someone of princely status – I am relieved that I don’t have a genealogy in which warrior chiefs, leaders, and strategists abound. So often, people with that sort of history, disappoint when they fail to live up to the expectations of others. What I do have to contribute, are stories, encounters and insights. I would like to start by sharing with you, my first experience of restorative justice.
In the summer of 1987, I held a position as the District Manager, Department of Maori Affairs, in Rotorua – a provincial city with a high Maori population both in the city, and in the surrounding district. One day, I was visited by the local Police, concerned that a Maori man living in a local village had committed incest with his daughter, but that those who were able to support the Police in their investigation were not forthcoming. The 15 year old victim had reported the matter to her schoolteacher, but subsequently retracted the claim. The school reported the matter to the Police, who in turn asked me to alert our indigenous Community Workers, as to their suspicions. I briefed the Community Team, and the senior elder asked if they could deal with the issue in accordance with Maori custom. I agreed, and was invited to observe.
Within a week, village elders called a community meeting at the local meeting house (marae), starting on a Friday evening. About 40 people attended. They included the suspect and his family, their extended family – (aunts, uncles, cousins), community elders, and representatives from each of the village families. Once gathered, they sat in a circle around the inner walls of the meeting house, and began reciting prayer. The village residents were all members of the Ringatu Church, an indigenous religious movement, with links to the Christian faith.
At the completion of prayer, the elders repeated the Police allegations and asked the suspect whether the suspicions were true. He immediately admitted guilt – a response common with the older Maori generation, who value truthfulness highly, and consider a person who does note take responsibility for one’s actions, as a coward. The offender was then given the opportunity to explain why he had committed the offence, and was questioned about whether he fully understood the harm he had caused. Following his confession, each member of the family was given the opportunity to speak. The 15 year old victim spoke of her own confused feelings – of feeling worthless and a chattel, but also talking of her love for her father, and the fear that he might do the same to her younger sister. The mother spoke out about her duty to protect her husband, and how she knew what was happening, but dealt with that shame through denial. The younger sister aged 13 years, spoke of her mixed feelings of fear and love. Each member present had the opportunity to speak.
The offender responded by acknowledging that he had done wrong, and
accepted that he would be punished by the community. He expressed
remorse for his behaviour, and sought the forgiveness of his wife and
The family members spoke first, then the speaking rights transferred to the elders, and finally to the wider community. Family members spoke directly to the offender, venting their anger and making clear the shame that he had brought on the wider family. The women comforted the victim and her sister, and one woman shared her own experience of being an incest victim. Senior elders recounted stories from Maori mythology which spoke against the evil of incest, and the moral and spiritual consequences of committing it. The speechmaking carried on until the early hours of the morning – interspersed by song, oratory, and the recitation of appropriate prayer. Finally, everyone slept in the meeting house until morning.
The next day, the elders discussed how the matter should be dealt with. It was agreed firstly, that the offender should lose his eldership and speaking rights at the meeting house. He was also forbidden to visit the meetinghouse when young people visited. Then, after much discussion, it was agreed that he would no longer sleep in the family home, but in a shed at the back of the house. He was only to co-habit with his wife during the day, when his children were school. His full conjugal and community rights would be restored when his youngest daughter had left home.
The offender accepted the community’s decision, and there was reconciliation between the offender and his family, in the presence of the wider community. The offender went on to faithfully observe the conditions set by the eldership for the next three years, until his youngest daughter left the home to work in the city.
Once the youngest child left home, a ceremony was held at the meeting house, accepting the offender back into the community and reinstating his speaking rights. He subsequently resumed normal cohabitation with his wife, and from then on, was treated as a law abiding and responsible member of the community.
I have often wondered what restorative justice practitioners would have thought of the process. While much of what happened was culturally appropriate, it may well have been unacceptable in a western setting. The victim, as far as I could determine, did not seem to be traumatised by sharing her story and innermost feelings with the community - nor was she subsequently stigmatised by the villagers, as a victim of incest. The penalty was quite severe, and yet at the end of the process, there was provision for reconciliation and full community restoration.
The process avoided dealing with the offender through the formal criminal justice system - an action which at the time, earned disapproval from some Police, and members of the white population. The local chief of Police took the view that without our intervention, the offender would not have been confronted with the harm he had caused.
It was my first exposure to restorative justice, and sent a powerful message. It seemed to me that the primary benefit of this encounter was that it brought a state of community peace building through dialogue, offender accountability, and addressing the victims’ safety and needs. So often, people experience restorative justice through a tightly formatted process or programme, subject to the whims of the criminal justice system, - it becomes a stylised and soul-less version of what restorative justice has the potential to become.
The question we need to ask is this – could it have been made more restorative? What do you think?