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Kim Workman: My first experience with restorative justice

April 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question we need to ask is this – could it have been made more
restorative?  What do you think? 


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