Giving youth a chance
As part of the Community Law Centre (CLC) network, Auckland-based YouthLaw has been providing free legal advice and specialist representation to New Zealanders under the age of 25 since the organisation’s inception in 1986.
The idea developed during a lunch between lawyer Robert Ludbrook and Auckland City Youth Advisor Ted Jones and it snowballed from there.
“The project was initially one small room with a telephone, a desk, a few chairs and a small number of volunteers; it was created to empower young people,” says Jennifer Walsh, a senior solicitor at the organisation.
“Within five years, the project’s impact was vastly out of proportion to its size. A case taken on girls being allowed to wear trousers at school, made headlines in the UK.”
While Robert and Ted’s vision can be best described as creating a place where children and youth can get free legal advice, it was also intended to empower young people.
YouthLaw was also the first New Zealand organisation to adopt a non-paternalistic children’s rights-based framework, which doesn’t require the involvement of parents or requires their permission for a child to receive legal advice.
The organisation is the only youth community centre within the CLC network and, alongside the traditional legal representation, they also place a value on law-related education which can provide self-help.
“We hope through innovative and targeted education and networks that many children and young people can be empowered and have knowledge in relation to their rights and obligations, rather than facing difficulties with the law and then seeking assistance,” says Ms Walsh.
YouthLaw is a strong advocate of the Children’s Commissioner’s top priorities, in particular, “access to and provision of education for children and young people is vital,” says Ms Walsh.
“A large proportion of cases we receive illustrate concerns around matters such as protection of the right to education, lack of adequate support and infringement of human rights. One of our key recommendations is the establishment of an independent education tribunal.”
The organisation also endeavours to ensure case compliance with set international obligations.
“We, alongside our partner, Action for Children and Youth Aotearoa, strongly advocate for the implementation of the concluding observations of the Committee for the Convention issued to the New Zealand government on 30 September 2016,” says Ms Walsh.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that many of its recommendations are still to be met in New Zealand, including in the areas of violence against children.
While CLCs used to be independent, and weren’t traditionally funded by the taxpayer, this has since changed and the funding process for the centres is now in a bidding format.
“Historically, pro bono effects of lawyers funded CLCs,” says Ms Walsh. “However, following significant changes in 2011, CLCs now bid for government contracts from the Ministry of Justice, who in turn now retain the interest from solicitors’ trust accounts.
“Funding of CLCs has remained static since 2009, meaning that there has not been any allowance for inflation and increased operating costs. This effectively means budgets shrink and can result in limited sums when it comes to providing a national legal community.”
These contracts also play an important role in helping fund accessible legal assistance across the county. “The system plays a vital role in ensuring access to justice for some of the most vulnerable communities in New Zealand.
“As a community law centre, we work to fill a vital gap between those that qualify for legal aid and those who can pay for a private lawyer.”
YouthLaw encounters a significant number of employment-related complaints from clients, and those with these complaints, given their age, aren’t usually financially capable of paying for a private lawyer.
A common complaint young New Zealanders who come to YouthLaw is about high school exclusion. This grievance is so common that YouthLaw conducted their own research on exclusion rates and found a direct correlation between those rates and the youth unemployment rate.
New Zealand’s youth unemployment rate is listed on the Trading Economics data chart calendar as 12.8% as of January 2017.
With just five lawyers for the whole country, representing everyone needing help can be a challenge.
“A large proportion of cases we receive illustrate concerns surrounding matters such as protection of the right to education,” says Ms Walsh.
Some of these issues can encompass discrimination or health and safety issues, while technology and cyberbullying are common issues.
“There has been recognition that investment into retention in education for children and young people has significant flow on effects on social welfare and criminal justice systems in the future,” she says.
As well as its five lawyers, YouthLaw has a large group of support staff who work as administrators and legal educators.
“At a day-to-day service delivery level for the organisation, we are committed to targeting our services at the most vulnerable children and young people in the country, and this includes targeted services and strategic partnerships with key organisations and stakeholders in the youth sector.”
“We hope through innovative and targeted education and networks that many children and young people can be empowered and have knowledge in relation to their rights and obligations rather than facing difficulties with the law and then seeking assistance.”
Last updated on the 6th October 2017