New Zealand Law Society - YouthLaw Aotearoa

YouthLaw Aotearoa

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YouthLaw Aotearoa senior solicitor Jen Puah takes the view that all lawyers should incorporate human rights into their legal practice, "so in a sense all lawyers should be 'activists'".

"Lawyers are uniquely placed with expert knowledge and abilities to work within the legal sphere to assist with important causes and marginalised sectors of the community who otherwise would not have the ability to work within the legal system to achieve outcomes," she says.

Her work with New Zealand's only nationwide community law initiative specialising in young persons' legal issues places her in a position to advocate on behalf of some of the most vulnerable members of the community – youth.

"Youth are inherently vulnerable owing to their age.

photo of Jen Puah
Jen Puah

"Lawyers can provide crucial advice at vital junctures in their lives. For example, keeping a child from being removed from school permanently has immense flow-on effects on social welfare, crime and social cost. Some of the best examples I can think of include helping a young person who is facing difficulties with their first job or assisting a young person with their first encounter with criminal law and obtaining diversion, preserving their future prospects," Ms Puah says.

In fact, it was her own experience seeking advice from YouthLaw as a 16-year-old that led to her to law school, where she hoped she would learn the skills necessary to help others and make a difference.

Specialist service

YouthLaw Aotearoa's specialist service provides information, advice, assistance, advocacy and representation to under-25s around the country, operating an 0800 line (0800 UTHLAW) Monday to Friday.

Where in-person assistance is not possible, YouthLaw works with other community law centres to ensure that any young person seeking assistance is supported.

Ms Puah says the range of legal issues YouthLaw regularly encounters is diverse and includes employment issues, criminal law, family law, tenancy rights, civil claims, human rights, privacy and education law.

"Youthlaw fills a gap where young people cannot obtain legal aid and cannot afford private representation and provides an advisory interface with other social service agencies to better assist a young person," she says.

It also produces legal information publications, and undertakes law reform by submitting on bills and publishing independent papers.

Recently, YouthLaw harnessed the technology so ubiquitously used by young people to create a smartphone application extensively detailing New Zealand youths' legal rights.

Strategic litigation

As for advocacy, it also sometimes engages in "strategic litigation".

The 2014 "Green Bay" case was handled by YouthLaw with the assistance of barrister Simon Judd after a student with special educational needs was excluded from a mainstream school.

"The case provided a platform to raise awareness about a large percentage of our vulnerable clientele with special educational needs who were having difficulties accessing and remaining in education due to a number of factors, including the way that special education is currently funded and administered in New Zealand

"The case generated an intense amount of interest and we were able to provide a significant amount of media commentary. The intervention in the case of Crown Law and the Human Rights Commission on appeal was particularly significant as it highlighted there were crucial public interest issues at stake," Ms Puah says.

Wider legal issues becoming important to young people include problems arising from the impact and prevalence of technology. An increasing number of youth are experiencing cyberbullying and many encounter difficulties, such as privacy concerns, because of the misuse of social media.

"There are concerns for overall student safety and ensuring that there are policies and safety mechanisms in place for young people online.

"Sexual discrimination is also a prevalent issue. Increasingly issues around LGBT arise in this context. It is vital that, for instance, schools are understanding of obligations to avoid discriminatory behaviour, for example with transgender students."

In the sense that it advocates on behalf of the vulnerable, and lobbies for policies that specifically support the rights of young people in adherence to the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, Ms Puah reckons YouthLaw is "quite proudly 'activist'".

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