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Questionable Legal Advice for Young People

Feb 21, 2003

A new taxpayer-funded booklet put out by the Victorian Government for young people has attracted widespread criticism. The 62-page booklet, entitled Am I Old Enough?, is meant to be a guidebook on the law for Victorian young people. Over 225,000 copies of the booklet were sent to 546 Victorian secondary schools.

Produced by Victoria Legal Aid, the booklet is designed to help young Victorians understand their legal rights. The booklet, in its fourteenth edition, was produced by funding by the Attorney-General of Victoria, who put $100,000 of tax-payers’ funds into it.

Now it might be argued that nothing is wrong with informing young people about legal issues that affect them. True enough. But the way this booklet is presented makes it more than mere information. It has a decided adversarial flavour about it. That is, it really seems to frame the issues in an “us versus them” approach: the “us” being the young people, and the “them” being everybody else. It appears to be young people against authorities, against police, and against parents.

For example, it tells young people when stopped by police that they need only give their name and address. It tells young people that if “you decide to make no comment to the police, stick with it for every question”. The booklet also gives this advice, “The police must tell you why they want your name and address. If they do not give you a reason, you should ask for it”. This adversarial approach is seen through this booklet.

It is as if a policeman has no right to go after suspected lawbreakers, and that every police inquiry is an invasion of someone’s rights. Presumably if a police officer pulls someone over, they have good reason for doing so. But this booklet makes it look like young people are always innocent while police and other authority figures are always guilty.

The surprising thing of course is that this booklet is produced with the assistance of the Attorney-General’s department. It should be more supportive of the police instead of appearing so antagonistic. What kind of attitudes does this booklet inculcate in young people?

Other examples include a section on weapons. It tells children that they can carry certain weapons, “like a sword, a large crossbow or imitation firearm if you use it safely and if you can prove you have a lawful excuse to use it”! Thanks a lot. The police will be happy to know that the next time they confront a gang of machete-wielding young thugs, that they will have long ago thought up good excuses to avoid arrest. “We were just on the way to our Machete-Appreciation Society AGM, officer.”

The drug advice gets even worse: “A charge of possession can only be proved if you knew the drug was there”. Thanks guys. That is certainly invaluable information for young drug users to have: “Drugs? What drugs?”

Or consider this helpful advice: “Using syringes or traces of drugs can be used as evidence of using drugs of dependence. Always flush syringes with water after using.” Thanks again. It’s getting easier by the minute to be an illegal drug user with this booklet. About all that’s left for this booklet to do is to advise our children where they can score their next hit, and perhaps a few more pointers about how they can further avoid police detection.

Whose side is this booklet on? The good guy or the bad guys? Why is a government publication in effect telling people how they can take illegal drugs, break the law and avoid detection? This is just plain irresponsible.

Children are also told that if they want an abortion they do not have to tell their parents, nor is there any age limit for it or contraception. How ironic that at schools parents need to be notified before any drug like Panadol can be administered by school staff to students, but it seems no parental knowledge is necessary if little Suzie wants contraceptives or seeks an abortion.

Critics might counter that this booklet is just telling kids what the law already says. Granted. Maybe some laws need changing, and fast. But it just seems incongruous that the government should be so intent on telling 12-year-olds about their contraception and abortion rights, and so happy to do it under their parent’s noses. Indeed, just how many parents are aware of this booklet? How many were told about it? Why were parents not first given a chance to vet the booklet, before it was distributed to every Victorian secondary student? I would imagine the producers of this booklet knew quite well that parents would not be too crazy about it.

Many other examples of how this booklet in effect teaches our children how to beat the system could be mentioned. Suffice it to say that this book needs to be radically over-hauled, beginning with parental input.

Another criticism can be mentioned however. In a number of sections of this booklet, websites are given for further information, and other organisations are listed for further help. However, the organisations and websites listed are far from across the board, and representative of varying viewpoints. Instead, they all tend to reflect one point of view. For example, there is not one get-tough-on-drugs website nor even one organisation listed anywhere in the booklet that offers a harm-elimination approach. Even though many such groups and sites do exist, none are featured. Instead, there are groups and sites listed that take a much more liberal approach to drug taking (the harm-minimisation approach).

The same with the section on sexuality. Not one abstinence-based group is mentioned, and not one pro-life website is featured. Instead, it seems that only pro-contraception and pro-abortion groups and sites are offered.

One gets the distinct impression that this booklet is not offering balanced and objective information, but is instead pushing an agenda.

All in all this booklet is a shocker. Police, parents and schools will find some things of help here. But they will also find much to be concerned about. Given that Victorian tax-payers funded this booklet, it is important that they all take a good hard look at it, and lift their voices about any concerns raised by the booklet.

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