From the Western Cape Government
The family group conference is a restorative justice mechanism by which families and communities are involved in making decisions about children who are accused of crimes. The family group conference aims for negotiated solutions to conflict. It is designed to heal the breach in social relationships caused by the crime.
The family group conference was pioneered in New Zealand in the 1980s during the reform of their juvenile justice system. It is a form of restorative justice that was devised after consultation with the public, including Maoris and Pacific Islanders, throughout New Zealand.
The first step is that the child must acknowledge responsibility for his or her actions. The family group conference itself is a meeting of all the people who are significant in the child's life, as well as the victim and the persons supportive of the victim. The main goal of the conference is to formulate a plan about how best to put the wrong, right. All the parties agree to the eventual outcome. The parties might agree, for example, that the child should apologise, or replace what has been stolen.
Conferencing is perceived to be especially suited to young offenders, as it allows for early intervention in what may otherwise become a criminal career. Children may also be more amenable and responsive to the process, which involves making them ashamed of their actions, as their personalities are still developing, and the process involves people close to them such as their parents and families.
Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have all piloted some form of family group or community conferencing as diversion or sentencing options.
In South Africa, NICRO first began introducing the idea of diversion of children away from the criminal justice system in 1992, using the concepts of restorative justice. In 1995 the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Young People at Risk set up a pilot family group conference in Pretoria.
Other South African pioneers of family group conferences are the Stepping Stones Project in Port Elizabeth, the Durban Assessment, Reception and Referral Centre, the North West Province Department of Social Services, Arts, Culture and Sport, and the Restorative Justice Centre.
The Child Justice Act provides for family group conferences to be a restorative justice sentencing option. In terms of the Act a court may confirm, substitute or amend the recommendation arising from a family group conference. If the court does not confirm the recommendation, it must note its reasons. Should a child not comply with the recommendation as confirmed by the court, the probation officer must notify the court, and a warrant of arrest for the child may be issued.