Traditional Maori ways translate to a new style of justice in Britain

Teira sidles into the room, black baseball cap jammed down over her dyed red hair. Seated in a semi-circle are her parents, an aunt and a family friend - along with Ian, a taxi driver robbed and assaulted by Teria last month, and his wife.

The atmosphere in the room, on the second floor of a run-down office block in the town of Porirua, north of Wellington, is tense. Teria, a 16-year-old Maori girl, looks anguished. Tonight she must confront the man whom she and a friend lured into a dead-end street and attacked. She will learn first-hand about Ian's suffering, and be asked to help draw up a fitting punishment for herself.

This is restorative justice, a system that has transformed the way juvenile offenders are treated in New Zealand and now embraced wholeheartedly by the British Government. It brings criminals and their victims face to face, and assigns responsibility for retribution to families and the community.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, last month announced plans for a major extension of a restorative justice scheme to deal with school bullies, already tested in two London boroughs. A programme is to be set up for adult offenders, who could avoid being taken to court or have their sentences cut.

Based on concepts rooted in ancient Maori and Pacific Islander tradition, it is internationally admired and is being emulated by a number of countries as well as Britain.

The aim is to keep young people out of court, reduce the rate of recidivism and give victims a meaningful role in the legal process. The approach has proved so successful in New Zealand that a pilot project is now under way in the adult justice system.

But critics claim it is a soft option offering the opportunity for a criminal to say sorry to their victim and avoid harsher punishments. The Government says that the schemes have the potential to deliver "faster, more cost effective justice" and hopes it will have an effect on the rising prison population.

Research from some of the programmes in Britain has been mixed, offering something to both sides of the argument.

Early analysis of a 15-month study, carried out on behalf of the Home Office, has suggested it could prove more effective for those offenders behind more serious offences, while finding no strong evidence that offending behaviour could be changed among the young.

However, Debra Clothier, chief executive of the Restorative Justice Consortium, welcomed the planned extension of the schemes. "Our view is that every victim should have this opportunity, should they wish, whether someone goes to prison or gets a caution."

In Maori culture, and in Pacific nations such as Tonga and Samoa, the restorative philosophy has guided society for centuries. In these communities, the extended family (known as "whanau" in the Maori language) and the tribe ("iwi") are the bedrocks. A crime committed by one individual against another has profound repercussions for the whanau and iwi.

As Saga Manu, a Samoan who is one of Porirua's youth justice co-ordinators, explains: "Where I come from, we don't go to the police. If my son commits a crime against you, then your family seeks restitution from mine. It's up to the families and the village elders to sort it." All 14 to 17-year-old offenders in New Zealand must now attend a family group conference. A punishment plan - often including an apology, community work and financial reparation - is drawn up and must be approved by all parties before ratification by a judge. The offender gets a clean slate upon completing the plan. If not, a court case and possible custodial sentence await.

Teria's conference takes place on a wet Wednesday evening in Porirua, a depressed town with a large Maori and Pacific Islander population. A police officer describes how Teria and her friend got into Ian's taxi, grabbed his collar, semi-choking him, and robbing him of NZ$50 (£17). Teria told him she had a knife and a gun. Saga asks Teria why she did it. "Dunno," she mumbles, staring at the floor.

Now it is Ian's turn. He articulates his shock at being attacked. "It's the last thing you expect, from two young girls. It was scary. At what stage do you stop being a gentleman and start protecting your life? That's what went through my mind. It's the first time anything like that has happened to me." Ian, who bit Teria's friend's finger, drawing blood, subsequently learnt she had hepatitis B. He had a three-day wait for a negative blood test result. He no longer works nights, the most lucrative time, and will not pick up some passengers. His wife and three daughters are deeply upset.

Teria's relatives are visibly distressed by this account. Her mother, eloquent and dignified, says the family accepts responsibility. "We're absolutely remorseful and we'll do whatever we can to make amends," she says. Left in private, Teria and her family must determine what restitution needs to be made. Their plan - with 100 hours of community work and a NZ$250 (£83) payment for lost earnings - is scrutinised and signed by everyone in turn. Finally, after three hours, Teria finds her voice. "I just want to say sorry," she tells Ian. "I shouldn't have done it. It was a stupid thing to do." He nods. "Thanks," he says.

As Teria apologises, tears roll down the cheeks of her father, an enormous Maori man, and her aunt. Ian's eyes are brimming. The evening ends with everyone embracing.

Saga believes Teria and she will not reoffend after the experience Sixty per cent of young people who attend group conferences commit no further crimes; only a minority of juvenile offenders even reach the conference stage, with the remainder dealt with by police.

But things do not always run so smoothly. The evening before, the extended family of a white 17-year-old boy - all the grandparents, mother, her boyfriend, father, sister, uncle and aunt - spent five hours blaming each other for his crime spree. "It can be harder for European families," says Saga.

Some plans are strikingly inventive. A Maori girl who assaulted two people was sent for four days a week to an uninhabited island to share a tent with her aunt. A gifted artist, she had to paint landscapes around the island and learn associated tribal stories. Once a week, her art tutor canoed out to see her. She also had to write songs and undertake community work. To repair her relationship with her mother, they went sky-diving together.

Results can be unexpected, too. Some victims offered jobs to their assailants.

Yet the system does provoke vigorous public debate. Neil Cleaver, the senior restorative justice manager in the Department of Child, Youth and Family, says: "A lot of people think it's a soft option. But it's actually harder than going to court. Facing your victim across the room is probably the hardest part of all. It's about shaming people - in a positive way - and healing. Europeans usually deal with criminals by outlawing them. Maori and Pacific Islander culture is inclusive. You're born into a structure that you are kept within, no matter how unacceptably you behave."

THE OFFENDER

Shafan Ahmed's story is a testament to the success of the limited experiment in restorative justice in Britain. The 15-year old from Bolton, who was convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm after kicking and punching a boy of the same age, had little desire to meet his victim.

Shafan says he was suffering racial abuse at the time and that he was verbally provoked by his victim, though a witness disagreed. He admits however that things "did get a little bit serious". Aiden Green suffered facial injuries.

Having pleaded guilty, Shafan was ordered to report to a youth worker for six months and had to pay £150 compensation. It was then suggested he meet his victim. Initially unenthusiastic, Shafan was surprised by the result and credits the Bolton youth offending team with saving him from further trouble.

"It was only when I shook hands with him that I really felt sorry for what I'd done. At first I didn't want to know the guy."

Nevertheless, Shafan, and his elder brother, met Aiden, his mother and his uncle. Three youth workers were present to mediate.

"When we actually met it was cool," Shafan says. "We talked about what had happened, and his mum told me about the effects on them of what I'd done. I apologised to him and we shook hands, and that was a big deal for us. It was kind of 'no problem' after that."

The assault was a first-time offence for Shafan, and he has since stayed out of trouble.

But does he think restorative justice works?

"These meetings should definitely be used more, especially if it's a first-time offender like me, because it might be enough to make you think and not do it again."

Oliver Duff

THE VICTIM

The experiemce of offender meeting victim was no less useful for Aiden Green. After being contacted by the Bolton youth offending team Aiden decided he wanted to speak to Shafan Ahmed, who just months earlier had beaten and kicked him.

"I told Shafan it was unfair that I'd been attacked by five against one, and that what he'd done to me was wrong."

Aiden's mother, Wendy, also contributed to the exchange: "I told Shafan that he deserved to take the consequences for his actions, that he had caused so much pain to my son and to me, and that it was up to him to put it right.

"We spoke about how we all have to live together in our communities, and how there are proper processes. We can't just take things into our own hands."

And as far as Aiden is concerned the meeting was a worthwhile exercise. The boys shook hands, and Shafan apologised and gave a guarantee that he would not threaten him again. They have since met and spoken and now get on "quite well".

"I was really pleased how it went," he says. "I felt that going there made me feel more grown up and like I was being listened to. I think it was far better than when we went to court about the attacks, because in the meeting I got asked my opinion about what had happened and my opinion about what I'd like to happen to end the trouble," he said. "I'm happy now. The problem's over, not stored up."

Oliver Duff