Ministry of Justice figures show there were 81 restorative justice referrals in Tauranga courts in the first three months of this year, up on 55 over the same period last year.
However, the number of conferences dropped from 20 to 14.
The restorative justice process involves the victim and the offender coming face-to-face at a conference, under Ministry of Justice supervision. The conference allows the victim to express how the offending affected them, and those present to acknowledge the harm caused.
Changes to the law last December mean a court must now adjourn certain cases involving victims to find out whether restorative justice is appropriate. Bas Kramer, general manager for The Restorative Justice Trust which covers the Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Coromandel area, said he had seen a 400 to 500 per cent increase in referrals across his area, depending on the month.
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He said court staff and most restorative justice provider groups around the country struggled initially because they had an increase in workload but not an increase in capacity. His trust had now ramped up staff numbers from 10 to 24, updated IT systems and caught up on the backlog for the eight courts it serviced.
Mr Kramer said restorative justice was a voluntary service and people had the opportunity to opt out at any stage. "Most people, once they hear how it can impact them, do wish to proceed and we tend to have good outcomes in most cases."
Last year there were 365 referrals in the wider area and to date this year there had been more than 730. Mr Kramer said a higher proportion of the trust's cases now related to family and domestic violence.
New Zealand Law Society communications manager Geoff Adlam said the new section of the Sentencing Act had an impact on court workloads and at the beginning of 2015 resulted in adverse comments from the judiciary and lawyers. The law society supported restorative justice in appropriate cases. Ministry of Justice research indicated it could be an important factor in reducing reoffending and in assisting victims of crime.
The new provision in the Sentencing Act says cases should be adjourned for restorative justice when the offender has pleaded guilty, victims are involved and no restorative justice has previously taken place.
The court adjourns proceedings while checks are made to determine whether a restorative
justice process is appropriate - taking into account the wishes of the victims.