A dialogue would ensure the faults involved are honestly acknowledged, the harms caused are recognised and understood, the needs of all parties are identified and addressed, writes Chris Marshall, an expert in restorative justice at Victoria University.
National Party leader Simon Bridges’ decision to carry on with the process of trying to “out” the person who leaked his travel expenses, despite an anonymous plea from the leaker to call off the dogs because he or she is struggling with mental health issues, is fraught with needless danger.
Bringing in the heavyweight auditing firm PwC and the law firm Simon Grierson to launch an inquiry apparently aimed at exposing someone who has publicly declared their vulnerability sends a troubling message about how we should respond to individuals with mental health issues who make foolish mistakes or do things they subsequently regret.
The message is, we will track you down and punish you for your reckless actions, regardless of your fragile condition. We will do so in the name of justice, or, as Bridges has put it, in the interests of upholding the integrity of parliament, not to mention his own reputation as party leader.
The greater good, in other words, outweighs any danger of doing lasting harm to the individuals involved.
And the risk of harm is considerable. Harm not only to the leaker, whose plaintive cry for understanding is being disregarded, but harm also to others who are struggling with mental health and its impact on their lives.
Such people will have registered the scepticism Bridges has expressed towards the leaker’s explanation of their actions. They will have noted his intransigent resolve to identify and punish the transgressor, whatever the cost may be. Why, then, would they dare to call out for help when things go wrong in their lives, when those in authority display such hard-heartedness rather than compassion?
But the course of action Bridges is taking is unnecessary, as well as unwise. There is another way of dealing with the problem.
The choice is not between pursuing and punishing the perpetrator, whatever the consequences, or choosing to overlook what has happened to avoid these consequences.
There is a better way of addressing the wrongdoing involved – the leaker’s breach of trust – without risking causing additional harm. It is the way of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a process that brings the participants in a situation of wrongdoing or conflict together, with trained facilitators, to talk honestly about what has happened and the harms that have ensued, and to discuss how best to address the harms in a way that will restore wellbeing and trust to the damaged relationship.
Importantly, restorative justice is a justice intervention, not simply a therapeutic one. That is to say, it holds people directly accountable for their actions.
But the accountability is directed at those they have wronged or hurt, not simply at the rules they have broken. And it is demonstrated by their willingness to confront and to seek to repair the impact of their actions on others.
So how could such a process be used to deal with Bridges’ situation?
The first step would be to appoint independent restorative justice facilitators who would talk to each party separately and confidentially to see whether they are open to engaging in a restorative process.
If both parties agree – and voluntary participation is essential – the facilitators would bring them together, with supporters, for a restorative dialogue; that is, one based on restorative principles and values.
Such a dialogue would ensure the faults involved are honestly acknowledged, the harms caused are recognised and understood, the needs of all parties are identified and addressed, and measures are decided for remedying the harms and restoring trust without diminishing anyone’s mana. All outcomes would be by mutual agreement.
Such a conversation would be challenging. But it would be a powerful example of what compassionate justice looks like, especially to those with mental health problems.
It would require courage on both sides and a generosity of spirit from Bridges that may not come naturally to him as a former Crown prosecutor, but may trigger memories of his upbringing in the church, where many times he would have heard Jesus’s saying, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
Professor Chris Marshall is the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington and author of Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (2012)
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