Advocating for young people

August 10, 2022 |

When we think of the law, we often think it is the domain of adults, of those over the age of 18 who are most likely to be impacted and need support from legal professionals.

But increasingly, society is learning that human rights, and the law are not defined by age or stage in life.

In 1995, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, in its Inquiry into Children and the Legal Process acknowledged the need for young people to have a say over human rights and the way in which the law impacted their lives.

The inquiry, now know as the Seen and Heard inquiry recommended a network of youth advocates be established. It was the catalyst for the Federation, Northern Melbourne Legal Service and Ashurst to work together to establish a centre focused on the legal needs of Victoria’s young people.

Youthlaw started in October 2001 and soon became a stand-alone centre, focused on advocating for and providing accessible legal services to people under the age of 25.

Now co-located in Carlton with the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women (LACW) and the Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ), Youthlaw continues to advocate for young people, delivering services to overcome unmet legal need while addressing systemic legal and social justice issues.

CEO Ariel Couchman said Youthlaw continued to watch, advocate and comment on young people in detention across the country, while also implementing a range of programs in Victoria for young people in child protection and who have left this care.

 “Our residential care project in Ballarat, Stand Up For Our Rights, will work with young people in 13 homes,” she said.

“The program is about empowering young people to better understand their rights.”

The program, which will begin in August will run for three years and is being funded through the Out Of Home Care (OOHC) network, which is coordinated by the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (CFECFW). WEstjustice operates a similar service in five homes in the western suburbs and the two CLCs are collaborating and will evaluate the programs together, ensuring a streamlined program.

Youthlaw has also been operating a legal pod program since January 2018, providing long-term assistance of about three to five years for people leaving out of care programs.

“Under this program, young people receive assistance from a legal pod of two to four lawyers in a private law firm who volunteer their time to help overcome legal issues,” Ms Couchman said.

“We now have nine law firms providing 19 legal pods. Over the past two and a half years, the legal pods have ensured $126,000 of fines and debts have been waived and have provided $872,000 of free legal advice.

“They have provided assistance to address past victimisation and, recently helped ensure a small inheritance was returned to a client.

“That’s an awesome outcome for the pods but more than that it provides immense support to young people who would otherwise be forced to navigate legal challenges on their own.”

Next up, Youthlaw will be rolling out the Adolescent Family Violence in the Home (AVITH) program for people under the age of 18 experiencing or using violence.

The service provides pre and in-court support and enlists two teams of a lawyer and youth practitioner working in Inner Melbourne and North and West urban Melbourne.

“This is a unique service,” said Ms Couchman.

“The program is designed to intervene early to help adolescents using and experiencing violence in the home. It builds on a model developed with CIJ.

“Initial reviews of the model have found it to be very effective in reducing court and police interventions and improving well-being and safety for clients and their families.

“Early evaluation, undertaken by CIJ, found a significant presence of violence toward adolescents at home, some disability drivers and some misidentification by police.”

Youthlaw is continuing to expand and over the next four years will partner with 12 new organisations to respond to the legal needs of young people experiencing mental ill health.

“And, as always, we will continue to comment on youth law and the youth justice system. Mandatory sentencing changes introduced in 2012 are resulting in custodial and harsh sentencing, while Victoria’s current bail laws have triggered a major increase in the remand of young people and jailing of young adults.

“These are just some of the things we continue to speak out on as we advocate for social justice for young people.”

Visit the Youthlaw website here.

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