Making legal information clear and available to homeless and disadvantaged young people on the streets of Melbourne

Youthlaw – a community legal service that offers free legal advice to at-risk and disadvantaged young people – approached us to help them design a digital resource.

Aggressive encounters with authorities on public transport are often the first time young people move from civil to criminal offences. Public transport fines perpetuate financial hardship, which can lead to further cycles of disadvantage.

Youthlaw needed help to raise the baseline level of knowledge their clients have regarding the law and legal issues. Equipping young people with a knowledge of their rights and obligations in these spaces is vitally important to help them avoid further financial hardship, and to avoid criminal charges.

Listening to Kid’s Stories

To understand what was happening in encounters on public transport, we interviewed a number of homeless and disadvantaged youth from Melbourne and Geelong. We asked them – in the presence of a lawyer – to tell us about times they had run into authorities, and what had happened to them.

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We found that there was a lot of misinformation about what authorities could and couldn’t do, and where they could do those things. There was also a lot of false assumptions about how to get legal help (which they assumed was too expensive for them).

Kids would sometimes falsely assert rights they didn’t have, which would lead to them being arrested. On the other hand, they were sometimes afraid of asserting the rights they had for fear of escalating a situation, leading to unnecessary fines.

We used these conversations with young people to create a “journey map” of interactions with the law, which we presented to Youthlaw lawyers and stakeholders, along with a detailed report of our research findings.

Mapping Interactions with Authorities

Young people’s journeys with the law are often complicated, and regularly tragic. More often than not, simple misunderstandings and confusion about rights and obligations lead to escalation of interactions with authorities, and these escalations compound prior offences.

By mapping young people’s interactions with authorities, we were able to identify a clear need for education about legal rights and obligations.

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We also mapped young people’s technology use: how they keep in touch with friends and family, and how they access the internet. It became clear that pre-paid smart phones (with low data caps) were a vital connection to otherwise tenuous support groups. Smartphones were usually the only way they could access the internet, along with public libraries.

It was clear that Youthlaw’s clients needed a mobile-accessible website that clearly listed the “can’s and can’ts” of different authorities. It had to be written in plain language that kids could understand, and provide ways to get more help if required. It also had to work well on a vast range of different mobile devices, of varying platforms, sizes and ages, and its pages had to be small so that it didn’t use up data allowance.

Co-creating “Street Smart”

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We designed and prototyped a website, and wrote detailed website content, by working closely with law experts — writing alongside lawyers to help them turn genuine legal advice into plain language that kids could understand and use.

This resulted in the creation of the online resource “Street Smart” – available at www.streetsmartvic.com.au.

The structure of the site was designed to meet the most pressing needs of Youthlaw’s clients. We validated both the functionality of the site and the value of the content with young people before the website’s launch, to rave reviews.

Ongoing research value

We also wrote a detailed research report for Youthlaw that was rich in themes, quotes and anecdotes from our interviews.

Youthlaw have since used the content of that report to apply for funding for other projects, and the report has been shared across the community legal sector.

You can download the report for free here.

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