Peacemaking - what it is and why it works
NJC's Magistrate Noreen Toohey on why citizens need a Peacemaking Program
Since 2020 the NJC has been building up its Peacemaking Service.
The service draws on conflict resolution practices from peacemaking circles to community conferencing, assisted negotiation and conflict coaching.
At the NJC, peacemaking adds to established mediation services available at all Magistrates’ Courts across Victoria, such as the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria which assists people involved in PSIO applications.
The Peacemaking Service also fills gaps identified in the community of Yarra, which is why it was first conceived.
In 2018, members of the NJC visited its community justice centre cousin, Red Hook Community Center in Brooklyn, New York where they saw its peacemaking service in action.
Buoyed by what they saw and the NJC’s previous restorative efforts, the NJC consulted Yarra services and residents and found a real need for early interventions to resolve conflicts before formal legal processes were engaged.
As with other communities across Victoria, Yarra has its share of conflicts and harm. These range from tenancy disputes to conflict among at-risk young people and between people with complex needs, many of whom live in or around three public housing estates.
In many of these conflicts, the police are called to deal with poor behaviour that is not criminal but is fuelling tension. They either steer an applicant to court or apply for an intervention order because it’s the best option available to them.
And so, the NJC developed its own Peacemaking Service based on Red Hook’s but with a flexible range of restorative and structured facilitation practices that focus on using the right process to fit the situation.
This light and nimble service delivery allows the NJC to take a creative approach, rather than a bureaucratic one, to conflict and harm resolution.
It’s also led the NJC to find more ways to do preventative and proactive work within the Yarra community, including training women from various cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds as peacemaking facilitators.
So how does it work and what does it mean for the NJC as a court and the community it serves?
Peacemaking works in the community to help residents resolve conflict as well as assisting people within the court process to either discontinue intervention order applications or to resolve the conflict that underpins the need for an order.
Participation is voluntary and people can opt out at any time.
The service helps participants to make peace with each other or with a situation. Sometimes relationships are restored, other times participants decide to end relationships, or they may simply no longer involve intense conflict.
The referral process is very simple. All it takes is an email or phone call to the peacemaking facilitator as well as handing over any relevant documents.
For community-based conflicts, referrals can come from anyone in the City of Yarra, including police, schools, the council, social services, housing services, community organisations or even neighbours and friends.
When a Personal Safety Intervention Order (PSIO) applicant comes to court, it’s usually the registry that refers the matter if it’s suitable. Police prosecutors, lawyers and any of NJC’s onsite services can also make referrals at any stage of the court process.
Recently, a young man came to the NJC seeking an intervention order against his housemate. Our senior registrar referred the man to peacemaking which he agreed to try under the proviso he would apply for a PSIO if it did not work.
Both he and his housemate, whose name was also on the lease, attended four peacemaking sessions which ended in an agreement to dissolve the share house to everyone’s satisfaction, and to end their friendship in a way that left them both at peace with the situation.
Should a matter already be before the court, I can adjourn it and direct our Neighbourhood Justice Officer, who is the nexus between the court, clients, and services, to hold a pre-hearing conference to explain how peacemaking could resolve the conflict.
The PSIO Pre-Hearing Conference assists people considering applying for a PSIO, or involved in an application, to understand the court process, obtain legal advice, be referred to support services and ultimately make an informed decision about their options. This could include working out a way forward that doesn’t involve a court hearing, such as engaging in our Peacemaking Service.
I recently refused a PSIO which police had applied for to protect a woman against a neighbour who loudly banged on the front door of her flat at 2am and threatened to harm the children she was minding.
Should he have said and done what he did? No. But it came to light that the children had been unsupervised and knocking on his door before running away since the early hours of the day before. He was harassed to the point of despair.
At the pre-hearing conference the woman and her neighbour learned about the steps involved in making cross-applications for a PSIO and how peacemaking would work should they choose that path instead.
The woman decided against making an application for a PSIO, and the man expressed remorse for his words. All parties agreed to behave better and the matter was resolved outside the court room.
There are three steps involved in the Peacemaking Service.
Step one: Intake. The facilitator speaks confidentially with each participant, to explore what’s been going on, explain peacemaking, assess if the matter is suitable and request each party’s agreement to participate in a facilitated meeting.
Step two: Preparation. During discussions with the parties, the facilitator may identify additional participants to include in the facilitated meeting, such as others who have been affected by the conflict and who can help improve the situation. This could include family, friends, the police, neighbours or housing workers. All participants, including support people, are thoroughly briefed prior to the meeting.
The facilitator also identifies any specific needs people may have and organises interpreters as well as cultural, religious, disability or mental health support to ensure everyone can participate fully.
The facilitator may also run conflict coaching, working one-one-one with each party to help them develop skills or strategies to manage or resolve the dispute.
Sometimes a matter will resolve at this stage.
Step three: Facilitated meeting. A peacemaking meeting brings the party’s together, including support people such as case workers, family or friends.
An impartial expert facilitator leads the group conversation.
A narrative structure is used to help the people involved describe and reflect on what has occurred, the impact of the conflict, and what can be done to improve the situation.
The NJC’s approach to peacemaking circles is dynamic.
An object (like a feather, stone, or stick) is passed from person to person and only the person holding it can speak. It may sound strange, but these components set the pace for deep listening, temper dominant voices, curtail interruptions, and give everyone an equal say
Participants also draw up guidelines, such as values and codes of conduct to create fair and respectful discourse.
Optimally only one meeting is needed, but the NJC will hold as many as necessary before a way forward can be agreed to by all parties. Follow up meetings can also be held to check how things are going and make any necessary tweaks to what was agreed.
We are also supporting the community to prevent and resolve conflicts themselves.
During COVID, the NJC used peacemaking circles to bring 40 women from newly arrived communities together to help them talk through the hardships and isolation caused by the lockdowns and to identify any common problems they could solve collectively.
In 2022, a number of those women were among 16 residents who completed training enabling them to run peacemaking circles themselves.
Why Peacemaking works
I think the process is hardest on the facilitator who needs to juggle competing tensions, demands, personalities and, in the case of the court, operational timelines.
But for the participants, the process is as simple as people make it and certainly far simpler than a contested hearing.
Participation can be organised in a matter of weeks, whereas the court process may take many months for a final determination to be made.
Peacemaking is about people having a say in how things can be made better as opposed to a contested court hearing where a judicial officer will make a final decision that the parties may not agree with.
If a matter is settled at peacemaking, the facilitator will notify the court and the PSIO application will be withdrawn in the person’s absence. The people involved don’t need to attend court again.
Worth noting: by the time a conflict reaches the court it may have esculated and become intractable. This makes it challenging to engage the parties in peacemaking; people may want their day in court and expect a determination in their favour. This is where early intervention is key. The Peacemaking service is working with local services to encourage early referrals.
Resolution – the way forward
Since coming to the NJC, I have seen people return to court fundamentally changed after engaging with the Peacemaking Service.
One man returned with a completely changed attitude. He told me that while peacemaking had not resolved the issue entirely, he felt the justice system had listened and given him time and space to reflect on his actions. He agreed to the conditions of a PSIO with equanimity.
This is a shining example of the importance of procedural justice in which people’s experience of the system is positive.
Ultimately peacemaking is founded on access to fair, appropriate justice.
Peacemaking can take time, but it’s time well spent for everyone involved, including a busy court that has criminal matters to deal with. Unless I assess a personal safety matter as a real risk (the court will always make an order where there’s a clear risk) I recommend peacemaking as a safe, informed, professional, and democratic way to manage conflict.
Coming full circle
From the outset, the NJC has taken an action-learning approach to developing the service, so each new case gives us more insights into the nature of the conflicts, the broader needs of the Yarra community, and the demand for the service.
As with everything we do at the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, peacemaking is based on the principles of community justice: it’s locally focused, it was developed in collaboration with those most affected by conflict, it challenges us to work with people, not processes, and it aims to improve community life.
It’s a simple formula.