Sitting in a classroom at the Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre, Andrea Georgiou seems more like another teacher than a lawyer.
And the young people who attend classes at Bowman Court don’t think of her as someone working in the legal system, but more as a friendly staff member who can give them advice.
“When I first started, I was a little unsure of what to do, but now I walk into each classroom and join whatever conversation is going on,” Ms Georgiou said.
“I’d been practising law for seven years, but it’s different to speaking to young people and gaining their trust.
“Most of the time things come up through informal chats with the kids, or the teacher tells me about something that has been disclosed to them and I will go speak with the student somewhere private.”
Ms Georgiou spends one day a week at both Wodonga and at NESAY in Wangaratta, while a colleague from the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) spends two days a week at the Albury-Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service in Albury.
The issues they have given advice on in the past three years, working under a project called Invisible Hurdles project, have ranged from fines to intervention orders, as discussed by Australian National University College of Law research published this week.
Associate Professor Liz Curran described the project as “efficient and effective” ahead of the research launch at the legal service’s office in Wodonga on Thursday.
“The young people watched the relationship of the lawyer with the people they trusted – allied health professionals, teachers – and thought ‘They can’t be that bad’,” she said.
“We’ve got scenarios where legal problems could have downstream social, health, employment and housing implications; a young person was experiencing suicidal ideation because they thought a legal issue had a certain implication.
“There was another young person who had a series of fines, and with the intervention of the lawyer they were able to get those matters resolved so they could be employed.
“Levels of stress and anxiety for the young people have been significantly reduced since having access to a lawyer.”
During the pilot, funded by the Victorian government, 101 young people raising 198 legal matters received support from the HRCLS lawyers.
For some it took up to six months before they approached the lawyer – one child had been in 71 homes across 16 years.
But the time and care put in paid off, with secondary consultations increasing considerably to 288 in the last 12 months of the pilot.
“For Aboriginal people there are really serious implications of the stolen generations – there’s distrust of services – that meant the project really needed to work on relationships built on trust,” Dr Curran said.
“Initally the young people were not presenting on their own, but by the end of the project, young people who had never sought out legal help were coming to see the lawyer, because they’d heard of the positive experiences of others.”
As one testimony in the ANU research notes – “The kids now have a different perception of what lawyers can be.
“A lot of them have dealt with lawyers before in courts and in the past; it has always been very negative.
“It has taken a lot of the angst out of the law.
“The boy with the fines said, ‘I didn’t know lawyers were like that’.”
Just prior to the release of research evaluating the first three years of the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service’s project, $340,000 from the Victorian Legal Services Board Grant Program – enabling a further two years of the project – was announced.
The funding enables a community development worker to join a lawyer at each of the three sites.
Wodonga Flexible Learning Centre campus principal Huw Derwentsmith said for many of the 160 students, their understanding of legal issues came from family or friends and was often incorrect.
“We want them to understand how lawyers can help them; they’re not just there at the end point when you’re in trouble, they can help you understand things so you don’t get in trouble,” he said.
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“We’ve got students who are victims of bullying, and issues to do with phone plans and leases, but we’ve also got perpetrators of crimes.
“They might have a lawyer through the court, but here they can understand things a bit better.”
Mr Derwentsmith said the program had also increased awareness of the legal centre on Stanley Street in Wodonga that provides free advice.
“We want to run some small programs around understanding the law, whether it’s use of mobile phones, domestic violence, or leases,” he said.
“There are doctor in school programs; now we have lawyers in schools.
“All secondary schools would appreciate it.”
The Invisible Hurdles project was created by HRCLS in 2015 with the awareness that in 2013, 80 young people who received legal advice disclosed family violence.
Principal lawyer Sarah Rodgers knew “we needed to go out to where young people were”.
“We reached out and approached a few organisations to see who would be interested in piloting this approach,” she said.
“This project is unique because it brings together health, education and legal.
“There are some other examples of health justice partnerships around Victoria … but there’s nothing like this as far as we’re aware in a regional area.”
Ongoing funding will be key to the project, and Ms Rodgers said turn-over of lawyers during the first three years – as experienced more widely by the service – could be addressed by investment.
“It definitely comes down to funding available for positions – community legal centres are often having to fight for their funding,” she said.
“If we’re able to advertise a permanent position that’s adequately funded, and not just part time, we’re able to attract people to those roles.
“Long-term funding would mean we can retain lawyers in the project.”