School Lawyer Program: helping young people access justice

A lawyer in the classroom as part of WEstjustice's School Lawyer Program

Annabelle Roxon came to SVA Consulting 12 months ago, transitioning from corporate law to a role with a strong social impact. In this blog, she reflects on the project she says she is ‘most proud’ to have been a part of in her time at SVA so far.

How do you reach those who most need your help, particularly young people?

That’s the question that community legal centres have long grappled with. Some of the solutions have included outreach clinics, evening drop-in services or specialist centres for youth issues or homelessness, just to name a few.

But when I heard about the School Lawyer Program, I realised I was looking at an innovative model that took outreach to a new level. The program aims to breaks down some of the barriers young people, particularly those facing disadvantage, have in accessing legal services by embedding a lawyer in a high school, and in doing so, aims to improve students’ health, wellbeing and engagement at school.

WEstjustice, a community legal centre in Melbourne’s west, started the School Lawyer Program in 2015 as a pilot project in one school. It has now expanded to four School Lawyers across five schools in the west.

I recently had the pleasure of working with WEstjustice to document the School Lawyer Program and develop a practical how-to guide for other organisations interested in establishing a School Lawyer Program for their school community.

Reflecting on this project, and on my first year at SVA, there are a few key things that stood out for me.

Program design is of critical importance

Through its pilot program and its own in-depth research in the local area, WEstjustice designed and tested a program with a unique combination of elements to provide the best outcomes for students and schools. In the School Lawyer Framework, we helped WEstjustice articulate what it takes for a School Lawyer Program to be effective: continuing legal education (CLE), ongoing legal advice and assistance, and warm referrals. Standing alone, none of these three elements are new or particularly innovative. But put together in a context where the School Lawyer is part of the school wellbeing team and becomes a trusted person for students, they are a compelling combination.

A diagram describing outcomes for schools in the School Lawyer Program

For example, a student may attend the School Lawyer’s CLE session about family violence and then feel comfortable enough to seek separate, confidential legal support from the School Lawyer. I was surprised that 1 in 5 one-on-one advice provided to students in one school was in the context of a family violence situation at home. In addition to assisting with any legal issues, the School Lawyer can also connect the student with other support from the school wellbeing team.

As one student said: The School Lawyer was a big support for me. I could talk to him about what had happened and my circumstances at the time, and he discussed with me my different options. Having these options eased so much pressure for me. I felt like I could breathe.

The openness in the social sector to the sharing of knowledge

At every step of the way, Shorna Moore, Founder of the School Lawyer Program and Director of Policy and Community Development at WEstjustice, has taken a sector-wide approach to the School Lawyer Program. She started the School Lawyer Reference Group to provide a forum for legal organisations to come together and explore the potential for School Lawyer Programs across Victoria. The premise of SVA Consulting’s work was to be able to share WEstjustice’s learnings, perspectives and guidance so that more school communities can enjoy the benefits of a School Lawyer Program.

While this approach isn’t unusual for SVA clients, it still surprises and delights me. Having worked in the corporate space as a lawyer, the question was always – how can we best protect what we have created, not how can we best share it.

The immense personal satisfaction knowing your work will be useful and will deliver impact 

 From the outset of the project, there was a clear rationale for why this work was needed. WEstjustice was increasingly receiving enquiries from schools and legal organisations about the School Lawyer Program, either wanting to establish a School Lawyer Program with WEstjustice or seeking guidance on setting up their own. And while WEstjustice was clear on what it took to create a successful program, they hadn’t articulated or documented it.

I recognised from early on how useful this document would be and that it would be used from day one. It provides interested organisations with practical information for the establishment and operation of a School Lawyer Program and guidance on how to approach some of the complex legal compliance and ethical considerations. It is also a key advocacy tool, assisting WEstjustice to promote the benefits of the School Lawyer Program to schools and legal organisations and government.

In my previous corporate life, I can recall many a project that was shelved at completion. Not so for this project – I look forward to seeing the School Lawyer Program go from strength to strength.

To learn more about the School Lawyer Program see:

http://www.westjustice.org.au/

http://www.westjustice.org.au/community-development-and-law-reform

School Lawyer Program Framework.