Internet Legal Services for Children and Young People:
The LawMail Project
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that young people must be given an opportunity to access the legal system and express their views, (article 12). The Convention also provides the best interests of children must be the primary consideration in legal proceedings involving a child, (article 3). These provisions, as well as others including the right to non-discrimination, (article 2), education, (article 28) and prevention of abuse and neglect, (article 19) can all be seen to require that children be given access to legal advice and information regarding these issues.
Since October 1998 the National Children's and Youth Law Centre has provided Australia's first internet legal advice service for children. This paper describes the philosophy behind the service, the trends emerging and the future for internet service provision of this nature.
The NCYLC is a community legal centre based in Sydney which advocates for the rights of children and young people in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Established in 1993 and currently operating with only 2 full time staff, the NCYLC provides casework for under 25 year olds, undertakes policy and law reform work and conducts community legal education. The NCYLC website, Lawstuff, was one of the first legal information websites for children and young people and was initially funded by the Office of Children and Young People of the Cabinet Office, NSW.
Children and young people face substantial barriers to obtaining legal information and assistance. The traditional avenues for obtaining legal assistance are generally not user friendly for children and young people. Many young people with legal problems don't have the skills or the confidence to contact a lawyer by telephone or in person for advice. They are more likely to feel intimidated, confused and perhaps embarrassed about their legal problem or question.
In addition, young people are largely excluded from legal processes. For example, in most jurisdictions a young person cannot commence civil action in their own right until they are 18. In New South Wales a young person cannot take out an apprehended violence order on their own account until they are 16. There are numerous other examples.
Similarly, the law affects young people in many contradictory ways. There are laws concerning the legal age of consent for sexual relationships, laws about when children can participate politically through voting and laws which limit their capacity to enter into binding contractual obligations. There are also laws which confer substantial responsibilities on children at a young age. A child can be criminally responsible at 10, (younger in some States of Australia), and in many states children can be subject to very severe penalties at a young age. In most States there are laws which affect the right of young people to use public space. The law affects almost every aspect of the lives of young people and is a source of great confusion.
The internet is an exciting opportunity to increase access to justice for young people. Information is the key to empowering young people to make informed choices and take control of difficult situations in a confident manner.
Young people are using the internet more often and with greater expertise than the adult population. It's rare to find a young person these days who is not familiar with the internet. Most schools and public libraries now have internet access and many youth centres and community centres are on line.
Self-advocacy is the philosophy behind the Lawstuff website. Lawstuff is aimed primarily at 12 to 18 year olds. It provides information about various legal issues for each State and Territory of Australia. Young people often don't conceptualise their particular problem in legal terms and therefore might not obtain appropriate assistance until it is too late. Therefore, cartoons and 'true stories' are used to encourage young people to have an interest in the law and to see the way the law has an impact upon their own lives. The design and structure of the site is kept as simple as possible. Lawstuff attracts up to 10 000 users per month and is widely used in schools and by young people at home, at youth centres and at public libraries.
The LawMail facility allows children and young people to submit their legal questions to the National Children's and Youth Law Centre. The young person fills out a form on the site providing their personal details and an outline of their question. He or she elects how they would like to receive a response to their question. Most choose a response by email, although those without an email address can choose a reply by postal mail.
Approximately 100 children and young people from across Australia use the LawMail service every month, even though there has as yet been no promotion of the service.
Although a comprehensive evaluation of the service is yet to be undertaken, the preliminary statistics indicate interesting trends. For example, a large proportion of inquiries have come from regional and remote locations in Western Australia. This perhaps reflects a need for legal services in these areas and may also be indicative of the increasing use of internet services in regional and remote areas.
The majority of the inquiries received come from 15,16 and 17 year olds, although numbers of inquiries received from 9 - 12 year olds has exceeded all expectations. For the 9 - 12 age group the most common legal question by far is about issues of school bullying. For all age groups school issues, criminal law, family law, child welfare and employment law are popular areas.
Positive feedback has been received from the young people who have used the facility. Some have become regular users of the service. Several young people who initially used the service were encouraged to telephone the National Children's and Youth Law Centre for more information. Those who have called have then obtained more substantial assistance. LawMail has provided an avenue for many young people to get appropriate referrals to other services.
The inquiries received cover all areas of the law and come from all parts of Australia. One of the first inquiries received was from a boy in Tenant Creek in the Northern Territory. Another early inquiry was from a girl in a detention centre in Western Australia. One inquiry was from a 9 year old boy who asked whether his mother was correct when she told him it was against the law for him to ride in the front seat of the car. At the other end of the spectrum, there have been many requests for assistance from young people with serious legal issues. An example was from a 15 year old boy who received on-going advice and assistance. He had a number of issues around having been seriously assaulted by his step father and leaving home as a result. He had gained access to the LawMail service while staying with a friend who had internet access. Through referrals obtained he received accommodation and financial assistance and he is currently pursuing his legal options.
There are many issues which had to be addressed when establishing the LawMail service. Confidentiality was a major concern. There are obvious risks associated with internet usage. Email messages can be sent to the wrong address or can be read by someone other than the intended recipient. Some schools have a policy of checking personal emails. We make sure that users of the service are aware of these issues. A notice regarding confidentiality and legal privilege appears on all responses sent to users of the service.
Inquiries have been received from young people who have suffered physical or sexual abuse as young children and are seeking advice about their legal options. Inquiries have been received from young gay men in Western Australia regarding the age of consent laws, WA being the only state where sexual activity between consenting males aged over 18 but under 21 may attract criminal consequences. Inquiries have been received from children who are the subject of Family Court proceedings and are frustrated by their lack of involvement in the process. It is likely that in all these cases no other legal service would have been accessible to the young person, either due to the nature of the inquiry itself or the confronting nature of other forms of legal assistance.
Well over 1000 children have received legal advice and assistance through the LawMail service. Many have received advice about an issue which is of some embarrassment to them. Many have used LawMail as the first step towards access legal assistance for abuse suffered. The LawMail service has the potential to substantially increase access to justice for children and young people.
LawMail cannot, however, replace fully funded specialist legal centres for children where children can obtain assistance from specially trained solicitors. There are only a handful of funded specialist children's solicitors in Australia. Specialist children's lawyers are vital, as are youth workers, counsellors and other service providers with expertise in children's issues. An internet service can never replace these services.
The LawMail service is yet to receive adequate funding. Although initial funding to establish the service was provided by the Stegley Foundation, there is currently no funding being received to provide the service and its future is dependent upon funding being obtained. We are unable to properly promote the service due to resource constraints.
From the perspective of the National Children's and Youth Law Centre, LawMail has given us the opportunity to communicate with more young people from across Australia than we have ever been able to before. The information we are obtaining from operating this service is invaluable in demonstrating gaps in service provision and trends in the legal areas of concern for young people. We have not yet even begun to explore it's potential.
'I wish I'd had all that info you sent when things were going down for me. Justice is so fully beautiful on paper. But sometimes people look at you like you aren't even human - let alone have any rights…I just wanted to say thanks again and to tell you I'm pretty well okay…' 15 year old LawMail user.
This is a Conference Paper published on 29 February 2000.
Citation: Neil R, 'Internet Legal Services for Children and Young People: The LawMail Project', Conference Paper, 2000 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/00-1/neil.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2000_1/austlii/neil/>