Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is the way of the future given the cost, delays and personal toll that litigation through the courts can take on individuals. Civil law disputants have and continue to benefit from ADR by resolving their conflict via facilitated dialogue. Conversely, when disputants take the litigation road their often subjective issues are objectively dealt with and the outcome does little to repair or enhance the parties’ relationship. Why is this important? Well, humans are social creatures. We survive and thrive because of our relationships with others. If a civil dispute involves individuals who know each other, either personally or through business dealings, then establishing understanding and peacemaking is vital to their future interactions. So, the question is: can ADR take the resolution of disputes a step further – to heal the parties involved? Restorative justice (RJ) offers a way to do that.
The RJ principles of encounter, respect, open dialogue and agreement, through independent facilitation, have been applied in criminal justice mediation and conferencing for some time. RJ addresses the needs of those involved, in a way that is meaningful to them. It gives individuals a ‘voice’, so the harms caused by wrongdoing, which can be debilitating and life altering, can be expressed. The transformation that can occur in RJ mediation often results in changed attitudes and material and symbolic reparation.
I am about to embark on a study of the mechanisms for dealing with civilian complaints against police in Australia and elsewhere. I want to find out whether there is a place for RJ in the resolution of this type of conflict which is civil in nature but sits in a criminal justice context. Given that the police interact with the community in the course of their law enforcement duties it is not surprising that disputes occur and that these can result in large numbers of complaints. But the way these complaints are handled (i.e. against police but managed by police) may not lead to the restoration of what is a very important relationship – the police and in the community. An initial scoping exercise has revealed that in most parts of the world, complaints against police are dealt with via an internal process. However, there are a growing number of international examples of RJ mediation being used to resolve these disputes. The expected outcome of my research is a best practice model for the resolution of civilian complaints against the police, which could be implemented in Australia and elsewhere, including guidelines for successful implementation.