Chris Marshall: There is a time and a place for restorative justice

Celtic fan Jay Beatty was just 11 years old when he became the victim of an online attack at the hands of a teenage Facebook troll.

Young Celtic fan Jay Beatty suffered abuse online, and the teenager responsible later met the 11-year-old as part of an early intervention programme. Picture: John Devlin

Jay, who has Down’s Syndrome, came to prominence when striker Georgios Samaras carried him around the pitch during the team’s 2014 title celebrations.

But his celebrity came at a price as he and his family were subjected to abuse on social media, including comments made by a 14-year-old boy who was later arrested.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

So far so depressing.

But then something unusual happened.

Jay’s father, Martin, agreed to meet his son’s attacker as part of an initiative encouraging young people to take responsibility for their crimes.

The teenager had been referred to the children’s reporter, who recommended an early intervention programme.

Speaking about the meeting afterwards, Mr Beatty said: “When he saw Jay and how tiny he is, it was very powerful. He was emotional.

“I think it really hit home, what he had done and that Jay was just a wee boy who loves football and had done nothing wrong.”

The meeting was arranged by Community Safety Glasgow, a charity which works in partnership with the city council and the police and helps to promote restorative justice.

A form of redress which often brings victims face to face with their attackers, restorative justice isn’t a new idea.

But it has traditionally been confined to the youth justice sector, where an early intervention can be made with young people to show them the error of their ways.

Its use as an alternative to prosecution for adults is far more contentious.

Last month the Scottish Government published guidance on the key principles of restorative justice and how best to organise dialogue between victims and offenders.

It followed the passing of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 which contains provisions on restorative justice as a result of 
an amendment secured by a Liberal Democrat MSP.

No doubt acutely aware of the sensitivities of allowing those who have committed violent offences to escape punishment by prostrating themselves before their victim, the Scottish Government has been coy on the idea.

Indeed, Michael Matheson, a liberally inclined justice secretary, has said very little on the subject.

Perhaps it’s because restorative justice is easily caricatured as the sort of touchy-feely disposal dreamt up by bleeding heart types with little experience of crime.

That is particularly so when things go wrong, such as a case in England where a woman who was glassed in the face received a scrawled written apology from her attacker which she hadn’t asked for.

But that doesn’t mean restorative justice can’t work.

Crucially, the victim has to be put at the centre.

As the English case above highlights, if the person who has been offended against is not signed up, then restorative justice is of little worth.

Nor should it be used as an alternative to prosecution in cases where the victim would ordinarily expect the offender to be punished.

But in less serious cases, there is role for restorative justice, particularly if it helps divert those who might otherwise embark on a lifetime of offending.