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Youth legal need surges during pandemic

Youth legal need surges during pandemic

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice COVID-19 Young Persons 

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COVID-19 has been driving a surge in young people calling for legal assistance through Youthlaw, Victoria’s free community legal centre for people under 25 years of age.

Youthlaw managing lawyer Paula Hughes says the service has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of young people needing assistance for the six months to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

"There have been a whole lot of legislative changes in the last few months so there are new legal problems coming through," she says.

"There are also new social problems arising for young people that have changed the way they're experiencing legal problems, how they're engaging with services, and also how service providers are responding."

Young people in particular have experienced legal issues exacerbated by the pandemic such as housing, employment and financial insecurity.

“Young people represent a large portion of the casual workforce and they tend to work in industries that have been particularly hard hit such as hospitality, retail and entertainment,” she says.

A common scenario is young clients no longer being able to pay their rent because their employment has been impacted by the restrictions. "Or they might have had a housemate who had to return to their home country and so that's jeopardised their ability to maintain rental payments.

"So, we’ve been doing a large amount of work with young people about their tenancy rights and obligations. The laws have changed quite significantly and there’s a lot of confusion about the current status of those laws.

"We're also concerned about the longer-term impacts for young people who are using credit products to get by or accessing their superannuation early and what that might mean for their long-term financial stability."

Youthlaw is also currently helping more than 20 young people who have received fines due to COVID breaches. In many cases the young people did not know about the restrictions, Ms Hughes says. "It's quite disturbing for a young person to receive a fine of $1600 and very few people have the means to resolve that type of fine."

Ms Hughes says Youthlaw is liaising with police and other stakeholders regarding the fines. "We are doing advocacy work to make sure those fines aren’t impacting on vulnerable cohorts disproportionately, for example homeless young people and people with mental illness."

Family violence is another area that has been exacerbated for young people by the pandemic. "There is certainly a concern that family violence victims are experiencing increased violence during this time, because everyone's in close quarters, everyone's at home, and factors like job loss tend to exacerbate risk factors."

Restrictions have made it difficult for family violence victims to access services during this time, she says. “In the past a young person could access outreach for example at a health justice partnership or at a library or somewhere that might be safe for them. But at the moment there's a concern that victims might be reluctant to engage with services if it's going to put their safety in the home at risk."

Young people who contact Youthlaw are put straight through to lawyers rostered on to provide advice, or are referred to other suitable services or the network of lawyers who have volunteered to provide help pro bono.

As with the rest of the justice system, Youthlaw has had to quickly adapt to the new no-contact environment. "We've had to be quite agile in the way we've delivered our services over the last few months.

"But young people have been really quite flexible about service delivery, they're quite open to using technology to receive services. So it will have an interesting flow on effect around service in the months and years to come in terms of how we engage with young people."


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