Published on Monday 12, April 2021
In July 2019, Inner Melbourne Community Legal received a two-year grant from the City of Melbourne to employ a Youth Outreach Lawyer (YOL) to work with the student cohort and broader communities of St Joseph's Flexible Learning Centre, the River Nile School and other youth focused organisations in the area.
Legal problems are widespread and often have adverse life impacts, including physical and mental health, financial and social impacts. This is particularly true for young people who experience higher overall rates of legal problems, especially those already experiencing socio-economic disadvantage who have a higher likelihood of substantial and multiple problems. Helping young people to prevent, resolve or reduce the severity of legal problems therefore has a positive impact on education, finances, health and safety. However, young people often do not identify their problems as being legal with a potential legal solution, are less likely than other groups to take action, or do so too late in the process. Furthermore, they usually make disclosures to trusted people like teachers or social workers.
Understanding that people do not turn to lawyers and can experience other barriers to receiving legal help, for many years IMCL has partnered with community organisations (such as hospitals, homelessness and housing services) to integrate legal assistance. Embedding legal services within schools is a logical extension of our long history of integrated practice and builds on the experience of earlier programs established by other community legal centres in schools across Victoria. These programs have demonstrated their capacity to support young people to remain engaged in education and grow up healthy, safe and to their full potential, and they have also proved the benefits of testing new approaches to providing long term solutions to social challenges.
To determine the best way to deliver the service to meet the needs of the school and its students, the project was designed to employ human centred co-design methodology.
Initial Project Outcomes
Our Youth Outreach Lawyer, Elisabeth (Libby) O'Dea, has carried out a number of key activities since the project's inception. You can read more about Libby and her pathway to becoming IMCL's inaugural Youth Outreach Lawyer here.
Using the human centred co-design process, it was determined early-on that an on-site school lawyer was the best way to reach students. This way, Libby is able to integrate into the life of the school and remain accessible and approachable.
However, the onset of COVID-19 also meant that Libby had to adapt the execution and progression of the project. The YOL program was immediately adapted to the new online environment by creating and posting legal education videos to online pages hosted by the schools so that students could access the content while remote learning. Since the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, Libby has been able to resume on-site engagement at the schools.
Readily contactable via mobile and email, and able to see students through appointments or 'walk-ins', the students have access to independent, confidential and individualised legal help, including ongoing casework and court representation.
Having our Youth Outreach Lawyer attend on-site at the schools has broken down barriers to seeking legal help, with steady increases in the numbers of students, like Madison, seeking help.
In addition to providing direct legal help, Libby co-designs and tailors legal education exclusively to the school community, supporting both staff and students to understand legal rights and responsibilities on topics like street law, employment, sexual offences and respectful relationships. Delivering legal education, including videos, information sheets and student workshops, is an important part of the project to ensure that legal issues can be identified when they arise and staff and students know where to seek legal help when it is needed.
Using the individual experiences of children and working with staff and students to facilitate their participation, she has also engaged in law reform advocacy targeting systemic problems with the fines system. You can read more about our youth law reform work here.