New Zealand Law Society - Explaining complex law issues to young people

Explaining complex law issues to young people

Sarah Butterfield – YouthLaw practitioner

Sarah Butterfield works for the Auckland-based charity YouthLaw Aotearoa, a community law centre providing free legal help to those aged under 25 who cannot access legal help elsewhere.

Working with often quite young people can have its challenges, she admits, particularly around work and jobs.

Sarah Butterfield

“Because we are a community law centre for under-25s we often have clients who are in their teens and even younger. It is difficult to try to summarise and simplify complicated legal provisions so that our clients can understand what their rights, obligations and options are.

“An example is employment law. Trying to explain the nuances and concepts around employment to a 16-year-old is very different than talking to a 49-year-old. Young people have not had the same life experience and can sometimes struggle to understand abstract concepts.

“I am also a youth worker in a girls rally group in my community – seven to 13-year-olds – and I just try to imagine how I would explain the law to them. I also have a younger brother so I often ask myself: ‘Would Adam know what you’re talking about right now?’

“Thinking about how I would speak to the children and young people in my life has really helped me to communicate with our younger clients.”

From isolation to the busiest city

Sarah’s family roots are in the Wairarapa, growing up on a lifestyle block in the village of Tinui, near Castlepoint.

While Tinui is an isolated area, Sarah found it a peaceful life, with her parents keeping goats, chickens and a forest garden for kids to play in. Attending the 30-pupil Whareama Primary School, she finished college at St Matthew’s Collegiate in Masterton.

In 2013 Sarah moved to Auckland, attending the University of Auckland where she obtained an LLB.

While studying at Auckland University, Sarah was able to volunteer for three hours a week at the Auckland Community Law Centre, which she did for four years.

“Every week I looked forward to my shift at the community law centre, and I realised that I wanted to have a career in community law. The experience was invaluable to me and has really helped me in my role at YouthLaw,” she says.

“The great thing about community law is that every day is so different. I find that I am always learning something new and being challenged. I am also really passionate about being a positive force in my community, and I can do that by empowering clients who are facing difficult situations by giving them practical and meaningful legal advice.

“There is a real satisfaction in helping someone to understand the law about something that has been confusing and distressing them.”

What made you decide to study law?

“When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to study, I thought about all the people I admired and why I admired them. I found that I admired people who were advocates for the poor and oppressed. Many of those great advocates and fighters against injustice were lawyers, so studying to be a lawyer seemed to align with my passion about social justice.

“I also initially studied theology and law, but I dropped theology halfway through to focus on law. I will definitely finish my theology one day, but at the moment I am really enjoying studying te reo Māori at AUT.”

Does YouthLaw have the same access to resources that private firms do or does this function like legal aid?

“Our funding is primarily from the Ministry of Justice, but we also receive funding from donations, and some other grant funding.

“I think the most challenging part of community law is the lack of resources/capacity. We have very limited funding in community law – which means that we have small teams of lawyers that are handling large volumes of clients. Unfortunately, we simply cannot provide the level of help that our clients need as we just don’t have the capacity.

“One way the legal profession could help to increase access to justice would be to offer their services pro bono – including to community law centres and our clients.

“This year’s Budget included funding for community law centres to establish a pro bono clearinghouse, which is fantastic news. This will put in place a system that can match lawyers and law firms who are in a position to offer support to those who really need it. Once it is up and running I encourage all lawyers who can to put their hands up to help.”


Angharad O’Flynn a.oflynn@icloud.com is a Wellington-based journalist.

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