Restorative Practices in Environmental Law: Part 1

Photo Credit: Mike Kofahl Photo Credit: Mike Kofahl

An Introduction to Restorative Justice in Environmental Law

Edited January 7, 2020

I was first introduced to restorative justice in my second summer of law school, when I spent two months working at the Community Justice Society (“CJS”) in Halifax. CJS is a non-profit organization that runs the restorative justice program on behalf of the Department of Justice in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

I quickly learned to appreciate how impactful and effective restorative justice can be, and during my third year of law school I received formal training from CJS to become a volunteer restorative justice facilitator. More recently, I received training in the Options to Anger program, which is an education program that teaches people who have caused harm to understand their issues with anger and find solutions to be more responsible for their anger.

Since my introduction to restorative justice work, I have sought to use a restorative approach in my personal life, and, now, in my legal practice. I believe that using a restorative approach in any legal practice is beneficial, especially in the environmental law field.

So, what is restorative justice? In a nutshell, it is a process and outcome that leads to social discipline. It involves using restorative processes or restorative practices, which are guided by foundational restorative principles, to bring people together with the aim of repairing harm that has been done and restoring and strengthening social relationships. It involves participation, education, and collective decision-making. Restorative justice is guided by many important principles. Participation is one of the most fundamental restorative principles and involves creating a space where each participant has an opportunity to be heard and where each voice is allowed to speak. Participation allows each person impacted by a harm to be a part of the conversations around repairing that harm.  

The idea behind participation is that when people engage with one another and work together, the results of that process are better and fairer than if the participants had not worked together. The process aims to create trust and build relationships, and it creates a space where participation and genuine engagement allow for collective—for community—decision-making.

Restorative justice builds trust and relationships, in part, by engaging with and including community in its processes, and that makes it invaluable in the practice of environmental law, because community is, in my mind, at the heart of environmental law, and because, perhaps more than any other broad area of law (and environmental law is broad) environmental law serves not just individuals, but communities.

As an environmental lawyer, I see many communities. On one level, there is the closely-knit community of legal practitioners that practice some form of environmental law. 

On another level, there is the community of environmental non-profit organizations, agencies, and practitioners, working every day with one another to find solutions to our most pressing environmental issues.

And then there are the communities that are the focal points of environmental issues that are at the forefront of our minds and hearts. The collection of individuals who fight to prevent destructive activities and generational inequities from permanently altering landscapes, who advocate for environmental protections, and who call for environmental justice and equity.

I think of the community of Pictou Landing First Nation, which has suffered adverse health impacts from the toxic chemicals in A’se’k (Boat Harbour) for generations. Or of the community of Harrietsfield, which has been calling for clean drinking water for nearly a decade. These are only two of a plethora of communities whose environments are being impacted every day.

As children around the world call for greater action in the face of climate change, as Indigenous groups demand greater accountability, healing, and reconciliation, and as grassroots movements continue to resist unsustainable industrial practices, it is communities that bear the brunt of environmental destruction and inaction on our environmental issues.

That is why restorative justice belongs in environmental law. It is why we—environmental lawyers, communities, and governments—need to do more to build restorative practices into environmental law.

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Mike Kofahl, Staff Lawyer