Aotearoa’s lawyers carry out many hours of pro bono work each year, and at the frontline working for those who are unable to pay for private lawyers, is the Community Law Centre network.
Among the CLCs is YouthLaw Aotearoa, which works specifically with children and young people nationwide.
The YouthLaw concept formed during a lunch between founders Robert Ludbrook and Auckland City Youth Advisor Ted Jones in 1986. Their idea was to provide free legal services to those aged 25 and under, or those acting on their behalf, who were unable to access legal help elsewhere.
It began in a small room with a small collective of volunteers and, within a few years, the project had taken off.
YouthLaw also places a high value on law-related education so that youths can provide self-help.
“We’re the only organisation operating across New Zealand where children and young people can access free legal services just for them,” says Sarah Butterfield, an Auckland-based lawyer at YouthLaw.
Working with youth
“I think this is one of the toughest things about our work,” she says.
“Because we are a community law centre for under 25s, we often have clients who are in their teens or 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.”
“Our funding is primarily from the Ministry of Justice, but we also receive funding from donations, and some other grant funding,” says Sarah.
“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/resources.”
The latest Government Budget included funding for community law centres to establish a pro bono clearing house. This will put in place a system that can match lawyers and law firms who are in a position to offer support with those who really need it.
“Once it is up and running, I encourage all lawyers who can to put their hands up to help,” says Sarah.
On 23 July, an important bill was drawn that outlines legislative change that could free up lawyers to work with these institituions.
Drafted by National Party MP Chris Bishop, the Lawyers and Conveyancers (Employed Lawyers Providing Free Legal Services) Amendment Bill makes a small change to allow a lawyer employed in either a law practice or in-house to do legal work other than for the lawyer’s employer, on conditions set by the New Zealand Law Society | Te Kāhui Ture o Aotearoa.
Its purpose is to improve access to justice without compromising the standards of Rules for Conduct and Client Care. As it stands, the restrictions on lawyers under Section 9 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, lawyers could be found guilty of misconduct by providing unpaid work to CLCs and CABs.
“The bill provides that lawyers may do work outside their employment on conditions set by the New Zealand Law Society,” says Mr Bishop, a former lawyer.
“I expect those conditions will include the work being done with the employer’s consent and on a pro-bono basis.
“The current Act is far too strict in its application and stops lawyers providing legal assistance to those who need it.”
Using education and networks, YouthLaw have shared their knowledge in relation to children and youth rights and obligations rather than facing difficulties with the law and then seeking assistance. Committed to targeting their services at the most vulnerable children and young people in the country, they continue to offer empowerment and help to New Zealand’s youth in need.