Working for positive responses from the legal system for those young people who may not trust or understand its machinations, yet stand most in need of it.

There are 51 community legal centres in Victoria, but only one of them is devoted solely to young people. Youthlaw is situated at Frontyard, which is a rapidly expanding co-location of services ranging from health to housing to education, all aimed at people under 25. There is another factor uniting those who find their way to Youthlaw: disadvantage – often chronic, and often severe.

A young man, for example, homeless and mentally ill, has been fined for an incident of drunkenness in a public place. He cannot remember anything about it; he had no other place to be drunk but in public; and at any rate he has no money to pay the fine. A teenage girl is ‘couch surfing’ after a terrifying escape from domestic violence and sexual abuse. A Sudanese refugee – past witness to an extreme of violence little known in the country he now calls home – has been arrested following a desperate and ugly fight on a housing estate.

The law, as we know, applies equally to everyone. In fact, since 2006 a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities has enshrined this principle in Victoria. But it is one thing to capture the idea in the statute books – quite another to make it come true on the ground.  That takes effort, persistance and hard work. Anna Radonic, an experienced principal lawyer, tells me that Youthlaw is really “about equal access to justice.”

Last year the Law Foundation found that young people are less likely than any other group to seek legal help. At the same time, they are among those who need it most. To be cast unsupported against an impassive legal system can be debilitating at the best of times, but for many of Youthlaw’s clients – who are already struggling with a host of other personal problems – it can be utterly devastating. 

The research couldn’t be clearer: The years of child- and young adulthood contain turning points at which decisions made and paths taken can have lasting consequences. One startling statistic is that over 93 percent of male prisoners in Victoria left school before the final year and didn’t complete any other form of training. To finish a basic education and prepare for a decent life young people need stability and they need support – unfortunately, due to chaotic family lives or serious abuse or just plain bad luck, most of Youthlaw’s clients don’t have much of either. 

The response of the legal system at such critical moments can make a big difference, which is why Anna Radonic strongly supports the kind of ‘therapeutic justice’ measures now dotted around Victoria: The Neighbourhood Justice Centre in the City of Yarra; the Drug Court and Koori Court; the mental health list at the Magistrates Court. “These have had fantastic results,” says Radonic. 

The idea is simple: If you can find out why someone committed a crime and help them deal with it, they are less likely to do it again in the future. Youthlaw takes a similar ‘early intervention’ approach. Their location at Frontyard means they can surround clients with a wide range of supports while working to achieve a more positive response from a legal system which until now did not seem to be on the young person’s side at all.

One client had been staying at a particularly cheap and nasty hotel in St Kilda for want of anywhere else to go. With an intellectual disability, a weight problem and a drinking habit he was an easy target. Perhaps inevitably one night his wallet was stolen, but when he went to the police they promptly arrested him for being drunk. Things turned violent; he was injured in the scuffle. He came to Youthlaw to make a complaint.

One year later he was back. This time he had been bashed by a group of teenagers who, once again, took all of his money away. He didn’t go to the police this time – what was the point? His lawyer pointed out that he was a victim of crime, and there was compensation available for people in his situation. “Many of our clients,” says Radonic, “just don’t know their rights.”

Youthlaw explained to a magistrate that their client’s previous traumatic interaction with police was the reason he hadn’t made a report of the assault when it happened. He not only received some monetary compensation – the magistrate also ordered he be given a bicycle to get from A to B! Perhaps most importantly, he learned that the law was not an enemy: it could respond to his needs and recognise his experience.

Not every client has a happy ending. Ariel Couchman, Youthlaw’s director, is realistic: “Those of us who have worked at Frontyard for some time know it will usually take two to five years of support for a young person to stabilise and move forward.” Funding is a constant worry. Grants are hard to come by; it is not just the clients who sometimes feel they have to beg for a living. But the cost of timely intervention and decent legal support is very little when compared to, say, the cost of keeping someone in prison down the track ($90,000 per year according to the latest calculations). 

Besides, there is a moral obligation at work here: “Many of our young people are not faring well,” says Couchman. “It is largely adults who are responsible for this, and yet are least responsive to their situation.” Youthlaw’s response, together with all the other services at Frontyard, not only offers hope to disadvantaged young people; it not only helps to make good on the promise of the Human Rights Charter; it also goes some small way towards fulfilling Youthlaw’s vision of ‘a just and equitable society for, and by, young people.’

Youthlaw: Young People’s Legal Rights Centre Inc. can be accessed at Frontyard, 19 King St, Melbourne.

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