Did you know that almost one in two Australians over the age of 15 experience legal problems each year?

The results of the Legal Australia-Wide Survey announced earlier this month found that almost half of all Australians were affected by legal problems every year. Even more concerning is that of those, only half sought professional help and of that half, only one third sought help from a legal professional. More concerning again is that people aged 15-25 were significantly less likely to seek advice and more likely to try and handle those problems by themselves, without seeking help, compared with other age brackets.

So why do so many Australians, and particularly young Australians, miss out on getting the legal help they need?

One of the problems identified by the survey was the ‘tyranny of distance’ for those living in outer urban, rural and remote parts of Australia. People with legal needs in those areas often cannot transport themselves across the large distances they often need to travel to be able to access the legal help they need. Even rural or remote locations where there are private law firms or free legal centres struggle to recruit and retain lawyers to provide legal help to their local communities.

Improving telephone and internet connections for people in those areas to access legal help by phone or online is a start but as the survey report concluded, communication and information technology alone is not enough. Solutions to unmet legal need in outer metropolitan and regional areas must be attuned to the needs of different communities. Not all communities in outer urban, rural and regional areas have computers, internet or sometimes even telephones at their fingertips and those with complex legal problems, low levels of literacy or limited communication skills need more than just a voice or a webcam image of a lawyer on the other end of the line.

The problems and solutions identified by the Legal  Australia-Wide Survey resonates with our experience addressing unmet legal need for young people in outer-metropolitan, remote and regional areas.

We know from the work that we do through our Youthlaw Online outreach service and our Remote, Regional and Rural report that there are a range of reasons why many young people in outer urban, rural and remote areas do not seek legal help. For some, lack of public transport or the willingness of a friend or relative to give them a lift meant they could not reach the closest legal aid office or community legal centre. For many living in small and close-knit communities, the stigma of being seen entering a lawyer’s office to seek help was enough to put them off seeking the legal help they needed. Some did not even have the family or social supports in place to be able to help them identify they even had a legal problem to begin with.

By providing access to free legal information and advice from a Youthlaw lawyer via Skype, we have been able to reach many young people who might not otherwise have sought timely and appropriate help with their legal problems. Better yet, more young people in those areas have been able to reach us online before their legal problems escalate into police or sheriff action, court appearances or imprisonment.

Although none of this would be possible without improvements to communication and information technology, we know from experience that young people in outer urban, remote and rural areas need more than just a lawyer on Skype for help with their legal needs. Many young people in those areas do not have a computer or internet at home and those who do many not be able to access that technology in ways respectful of their confidentiality and privacy. And many may find accessing Skype to speak to a lawyer on their own too difficult for a host of reasons – such as mental illness, cognitive impairment or limited English-speaking ability.

Crucial to Youthlaw Online’s ability to meet young people’s legal needs is the collaboration of local youth services in outer urban, remote and rural areas. We now have four different youth services helping young people to link up with Youthlaw online for free legal information and advice throughout Victoria by providing safe and private spaces with computers, webcams and internet connection across eight locations around Victoria.

Beyond assisting young people to log onto Skype, hook up modems and switch on web cams, those local youth services play a critical role in linking young people up with supports such as housing assistance, counselling, medical treatment or training and education. As the report acknowledged, factors such as homelessness, health problems, financial hardship and lack of education make a person far more likely to encounter legal problems and those legal problems can make the impact of those barriers on a person’s wellbeing even worse.

It’s a cycle of unmet need that models like Youthlaw Online can start to break.