Law Foundation project helps retain specialist youth advocates
Researcher: Alison Cleland, Auckland University Law Faculty
A Law Foundation-funded project provided critical evidence that helped overturn plans to remove the specialist training requirement for people who work with youth offenders.
Alison Cleland’s research conclusively showed the importance and complexity of youth advocates’ work – and the value of retaining specialist training for them.
Cleland’s research, published in August 2012, coincided with Government plans to remove specialist criteria for youth advocates under the Legal Assistance (Sustainability) Bill.
Cleland says that the Law Society and other lobbyists used her report as evidence of youth advocates’ specialisation and uniqueness.
“The Government finally agreed to remove the proposal that youth advocates should be brought under legal aid, and general standards applied,” she says. “They remain court-appointed specialist lawyers for young people. I think that is an extremely important way that the system recognises the needs of young clients.
“You need to be a specialist to do the job well. The Bill suggested that anybody could do it – well, anyone can’t. With young people, as with other groups, if you don’t do something well, you make it worse,” she says.
At the report launch, Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft said New Zealand’s “extremely good” youth justice system was also significantly undervalued, and should not be taken for granted.
“Your research gives our youth justice system a good clean bill of health, but with improvements suggested – and these are noted…we will take your recommendations to heart,” he said.
State-funded youth advocates help young offenders in courts and family group conferences throughout New Zealand. Cleland’s research involved interviews with judges, advocates and youth aid workers from four youth court areas.
“New Zealand is regarded as a world leader in youth justice practice, but until now there has been no research evidence to validate this view – previous research has concentrated largely on what happens in family group conferences.
“A lot goes on before you get near the family group conference – the value of the restorative model is in doubt unless you can explain to young people what the purpose of it is.”
She says the strong response from youth advocates to her interview requests provided a sound evidence base for her recommendations.
“Thirty-four of 36 youth court advocates spoke to me. That large sample gave me an enormous amount of rich data to draw on. The Law Foundation funding enabled me to codify 1100 pages of data.”
She says the responses conclusively confirm the challenges faced by youth advocates.
“Young people have limited ability to understand legal language and concepts – this is also true of adults, but especially of young people,” she says.
“Many are damaged by abuse, and have limited ability to trust people. But once they understand the charges and the process, there is a chance for young people to get a really good outcome from the system.”
The youth advocate goes beyond a basic interface and advocacy role to being a mentor and supporter, she says.
Cleland’s research recommends formal training for youth advocates, especially given that the original cadre of experienced advocates who started in 1989 are now beginning to retire.
“None of the youth justice advocates have any formal training – 47 per cent of those in my sample have between 16 and 30 years’ experience, and a lot have been in the system since 1989.
“There is a need to put comprehensive training in place for the next generation of youth advocates. We are very lucky that such good standards have been developed,” she says.
The New Zealand Law Foundation provided a grant of $14,275 in 2011 for this project.
Download a copy of the Research Report “Youth Advocates in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Youth Justice System”