Leaders: Sensitive handling on restorative justice

Restorative justice shows criminals that their victims are people of flesh and blood. Picture: Bill Henry
Restorative justice shows criminals that their victims are people of flesh and blood. Picture: Bill Henry
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Crime is personal. Any victim of an assault or a burglary can attest to that fact. Being on the receiving end of a crime can frequently leave the victim feeling personally violated. It can leave a strong residue of anger, and a powerful need for redress.

This is why a new measure introduced at the Scottish Parliament yesterday is an imaginative development in Scottish criminal justice, and one that will be welcomed by many campaigners.

In committee at Holyrood, Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes brought forward an amendment to the Victims and Witnesses Bill that could incorporate “restorative justice” into Scots law.

This would give victims of crime the right to demand a face-to-face apology from the person who committed that crime. Pilot schemes with young offenders are said to have produced encouraging outcomes, in two ways.

First, they have helped victims come to terms with their ordeal, and to address what can often be a debilitating feeling of helplessness and powerlessness.

Secondly, perpetrators have been forced to confront the often devastating effects their actions have had on real people. Sometimes, those guilty of crimes are barely aware of their victims at all, except in some generic sense. Restorative justice shows them as people of flesh and blood, and feelings too.

Some victims of crime find this a cathartic process. If crime is personal, then maybe justice should be too. In the overused and often misunderstood phrase, it might allow them to “find closure”.

The difficulty might be that different people will find closure in different ways. We need to be careful here. Could it be that, in some cases, asking a victim of crime if they want to confront their perpetrator is placing on the victim an unnecessary burden of anxiety?

For some victims, the virtue of the law is that it is impersonal, not personal. They are able to leave justice in the hands of the justice system. For some victims, the dilemma of whether or not to confront the perpetrator could become an unwanted and unwelcome responsibility.

In other areas of the law, it has been deemed necessary to remove any element of discretion from victims – for example, on whether or not to press charges in domestic abuse cases. This would add one in. It is not hard to envisage some victims of crime finding the idea of reparation difficult. If they assent, will they be able to cope? If they don’t, will they have made it easier for the person who has committed the crime?

All these factors need to be taken into account in assessing the practical benefits of whether this should become mainstreamed into our criminal justice system.

What has to be acknowledged however, is that in the right circumstances this can be a powerful tool in giving people back their dignity and their self-worth.

Higgs merits his superstardom

Scotland is fortunate enough to have been home to some of the world’s great scientists, and their discoveries have added lustre to the nation for centuries.

Professor Peter Higgs is one of those scientists. His identification of the Higgs boson – first as a theory in 1964 and then, after the extraordinary series of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), as a provable scientific fact – is one of the landmark moments of our age.

The discovery of the “god particle” earned Prof Higgs a Nobel Prize and international superstar status well beyond the scientific community. His portrait in oils hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and earlier this year, his achievement was commemorated in a song, The Higgs Boson Blues, on an album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Now it seems the good professor is slightly abashed at the reaction to his life work. And he has questioned whether it might have been a little over the top.

“I was quite worried at one time that the importance of the discovery of this particular particle was being overplayed,” he said yesterday at the opening of an exhibition in London about the LHC. He was worried other work at the Cern facility would be overshadowed.

Prof Higgs need not be so modest. His was a remarkable discovery that provided a key building block for the Standard Model of subatomic particles. From this all other physics derives.

The irony is that Prof Higgs’ modesty is simply another very good reason why we should cherish him as a national icon. His insistence that he is not as great as everyone makes out simply makes us appreciate him even more.