A voice for the young, disempowered and vulnerable

A voice for the young, disempowered and vulnerable

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Child Protection Senior Lawyer Erica Contini
Above: Child Protection Senior Lawyer Erica Contini

How long have you worked at VLA and what attracted you to work for the organisation?

I’ve been at legal aid for six years. I started in the New Lawyers Program and was attracted to working at legal aid because of my passion and experience in human rights law.

I wanted to try and incorporate human rights arguments into legal practice and felt legal aid was the best place to present human rights arguments in criminal matters. I completed a rotation in adult crime (which was fascinating but not as receptive to human rights arguments) and moved into the youth legal service. I found that I loved the work and the ability to make human rights arguments in a practical way that protected and served the best interests of the child.

I enjoy representing clients and I do this regularly as a lawyer in the criminal division defending children, and in the family division representing parents and children. I enjoy ensuring they have a say.

What are the prime duties in your role, and what does a normal day involve?

I represent children in criminal proceedings and children and parents in child protection and intervention order applications. I attend court regularly, acting for clients and advocating on their behalf. I have a good mix of work in both divisions of the jurisdiction.

My days usually involve going to court and meeting with clients, negotiating with the other parties, including Victoria Police and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and making legal submissions before magistrates. On other days I field advice calls over the phone from children and parents, in and out of custody. I also attend the youth justice centres and give legal advice to young people in custody.

What are the challenges you face in your role?

Parents are my main challenge.

They struggle with the idea that I am a lawyer who acts for their child, which means I take instructions from the child and not them. Parents want to remain in control and want me to do what they say, but this isn’t my job. I act on the instructions of my clients and fight for what they want – even if that isn’t want the parents want.

The workload can also be challenging, but I have great colleagues who help make it manageable.

The subject matter is also challenging, and we hear some pretty horrific stories about the treatment of children and at times insufficient support for our clients from the department.

Lack of resources in the area is also a frustration. There aren’t enough support services out there for children and families which results in children being out of the care of their parents for an unnecessarily long time, simply due to delays in getting families the support they need.

What personal qualities do you need to succeed in your role?

This job requires you to be resilient and passionate about helping people.

You need to have courage to stand up to the government and be willing to make the hard arguments before magistrates. Good organisational skills and a great sense of humour are also very handy.

How does your role make a difference in the community?

My job enables me to give children a voice and advocate for what they want. Young people are often ignored in society and this is the one area where they are heard, and are seen as a legitimate party in the proceedings. They have a say in an area of the law that impacts directly on their lives.

I love being able to give them a say, as children in our jurisdiction often have more insight into their situation than their parents.

My role also helps keep families together. We ensure children and parents know their rights and feel competent asserting them when faced with the overwhelming pressure of the child protection system to make decisions (often life-long) in relation to their children.

We also give a voice to children when often they are completely neglected or overlooked.

The DHHS involvement in the family unit is a huge incursion into a right most of us take for granted. I think we help keep the child protection system accountable and ensure the principle of minimal intervention is upheld.

What satisfaction/rewards d​o you get from your work?

Working with great supportive colleagues who are passionate about what we are doing and have a good sense of humour is very satisfying.

I also derive great joy from getting children back to their parents and ensuring the family unit is well supported. It’s a great feeling when you are able to convince a magistrate to keep a family together, or are successful in an argument on your client’s behalf. The look on a client’s face when they hear that their children are coming home, or when they are told they will get bail, is priceless.

Why did you decide to pursue a ​career in a legal field?

I believe we need smart people to advocate on behalf of people in court.

I grew up in a society where rights were essential and government intrusion into those rights was not accepted. The law is the best way to ensure that people’s rights are protected and promoted.

I also believe that we can make a better world by improving just one person’s life, and the law is a great avenue to help people.

What advice would you give to people wanting to practise in your area?

Do it! Children’s law is an area of the law that I knew nothing about before I started practising in it, and I’ve found it to be one of the most interesting and challenging areas of law. If you like thinking on your feet and appearing regularly in court, this is the area for you.

Children’s law also gives you the opportunity to make a lot of interesting legal arguments and get a grant of legal assistance so you can take a case from start to end. You can challenge unfair laws or make arguments about ambiguity in the law because this area of work gets legal funding as we often represent vulnerable children.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m a member of the Youth Law Board and love playing sports, in particular ice hockey and field hockey. I also enjoy spending time with my friends and family, love going to theatre and reading and playing with my cat.

Can you give an example of a day where you have gone home and thought to yourself, ‘I’ve really made a difference in that person’s/client’s life today

I think I make a difference most days and in a variety of ways.

A small change on a court order can transform a person’s life, and simply increasing a parent’s contact with their child by a day a week can make a world of difference to them. Most importantly, removing a child from a situation where they are unsafe or scared is very rewarding. Giving a child a voice (even if the court decides against what they want) will change their life, as they know they will have been heard.

Can you give an example of any professional development opportunities at VLA that have helped improve your skills?

The New Lawyers Program was great in giving me the opportunity to determine what area of the law I was passionate about. I thought I wanted to practise criminal law only, but I subsequently saw what was happening in the Family Division of the Children’s Court (and the power imbalance between clients and the state) and just loved the work.

I had never thought about working specifically in the Children’s Court until I completed my rotation there and was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Anything else you wish to add?

Child protection law is not family law. We are representing children and parents in DHHS applications. We are not lawyers settling disputes between parents. Ultimately, we are the only jurisdiction that recognises the individual legal capacity of young people and gives them a say in matters that impact upon them. If you consider yourself a human rights lawyer and want to put your human rights passion into practice, this is the jurisdiction to be in.

More information

If you would like to work in our Child Protection area, please apply for our Deputy Managing Lawyer, Child Protection position.