The project is part of an MoJ drive to devolve criminal justice down to the local level, shutting 142 magistrates and county courts across England and Wales and saving £41.5m. Yet the ministry insists the network of neighbourhood is not simply a cheap way of replacing closed courtroom. Not a penny of government cash is on offer to fund the panels, though they could deal with criminal or anti-social behaviour, minor criminal damage and neighbourhood disputes.

....This optimism is not shared by Chris Igoe, assistant director of the Restorative Justice Council, which represents trained practitioners. "The financial situation has hampered how much [restorative justice] has caught on. It is going to be very difficult for local authorities to set these up without additional funding," he says. "They are certainly cheaper than courts, but you have to make sure the volunteers are well trained in restorative justice principles."

....Norfolk council has kept costs down by developing an in-house training programme, explains Kirsten Cooper, the authority's restorative approaches development manager. It offers victims of crime a "menu of services" including a face-to-face meeting with offenders and a "shuttle service" where mediators act as go-betweens. The approach is so successful that Norfolk is applying the restorative justice method to all its services.

"We are moving towards being a restorative authority by trying to embed it in everything we do," Cooper says. The council has seen a 50% reduction in high school exclusions and earned a commendation by schools inspector Ofsted for halving the number of children in care who enter the criminal justice system. "First-time offending has continued to reduce year on year, supported by a highly effective restorative justice approach," the watchdog said in its report this June.

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