Navigating the legal system doesn’t come easily to most of us, but imagine how hard it must be for a disadvantaged person under the age of 25. Without knowing the intricacies of the law, or even their own basic rights, young people can feel abandoned by the system.
That’s where Youthlaw comes in. Since 2001, the Melbourne-based legal rights centre has offered free advice and support to those who need it most in Victoria.
“We target young people who have had a difficult beginning in life,” says Youthlaw director Ariel Couchman, who’s been with the organisation for 10 years. “They often have multiple legal issues [but] don’t know about the law. We’re here to assist those young people who would otherwise not get help.”
As a not-for-profit with only a modest number of staff, Youthlaw very much relies on vital contributions from sources such as the coffee-centred national initiative CafeSmart. StreetSmart’s annual one-day fundraising campaign, which returns on August 3 this year, asks generous cafes across Australia to donate $1 for every coffee sold to a local, grassroots organisation that deal with issues related to homelessness. Customers can also chip in their support as well.
“They’re such a terrific organisation,” says Couchman. “Within the current funding climate, you often have to fill in all sorts of applications and justify why you need the money. [CafeSmart] target their funding to organisations that are small, don’t have a lot of money, do really good work and just need that little bit of extra money to keep going. They know you’re doing a good job.”
Youthlaw began because lawyers and community members observed that many young people weren’t comfortable with the legal system, and thus weren’t dealing with their legal problems. Besides being free of charge, the statewide resource offers a wide range of engagement, whether it’s drop-in clinics, advice by phone or email, or even legal service via Skype for those living in regional and rural Victoria.
“So often these days, you ring and get a phone service that’s automated,” Couchman says. “Or you have to go a long distance to make an appointment somewhere. We try to provide a [live] telephone service every day, just to be there to give people basic information about whether they do need to see a lawyer.” A lot of parents ring in too, seeking advice for their kids.
But without even picking up the phone, young people can access a helpful series of fact sheets on Youthlaw’s website, which are specially tailored to be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. The sheets provide instant information about going to court, becoming independent or dealing with cyberbullying, family violence and problems with the police.
The aim of those sheets is “to distil the law into what’s really relevant to young people’s lives,” says Couchman. “We hone in on the stuff that people are most commonly dealing with, like fines. And there’s court representation that a lot of other people don’t provide, because Legal Aid has very strict guidelines. So lots of young people can’t get any assistance, and they generally don’t have a lot of money.” She adds that Youthlaw is based on an empowerment model, where young people are educated and supported to ultimately use the law themselves.
Couchman singles out Youthlaw’s new Legal Pod program, funded by donations from CafeSmart. Through the program, around 70 lawyers are donating their time to assist young people who are leaving child protection. When these youths turn 18, they don’t have the support that many of us do at this critical time in life, where we need to navigate things such as renting or obtaining identity documents for the first time. The program runs for up to three years.
“It’s a combined mentoring and legal role,” says Couchman. “They’re going to be providing a kind of parental assistance. [Plus] all those bits of information we take for granted, like how to get your license and apply for a bank account.”
Like everything at Youthlaw, it caters specifically to young people in need. “It’s that immediate information,” she says. “We know that young people rarely organise themselves to see a lawyer. They often don’t think people will be able to help them. It’s not a priority [until] it’s happening. So we provide our services in a way that fits that. We try to be as accessible and flexible as possible.”
Youthlaw also works with existing organisations, partnering with Headspace centres for youths who have mental health issues and utilising the centre’s own handy co-location with Frontyard Youth Services in Melbourne’s CBD. Thanks to those extra dollars that community minded cafes kindly donate every year via CafeSmart, indispensible local organisations such as Youthlaw can continue to operate.
“We’ve got very small staff numbers,” says Couchman, “[but] we do a hell of a lot. And we’re statewide. So we’re always very busy.”
Youthlaw is just one of many organisations supported by CafeSmart, an initiative that unites the community over coffee to help fund local homelessness services. CafeSmart returns August 3. Find participating cafes here. Roasters can become partners here. Cafe owners can sign up to CafeSmart here.