‘I wasn’t your typical law student’ – from young offender to lawyer

‘I wasn’t your typical law student’ – from young offender to lawyer

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Solicitor Jason James
Solicitor Jason James

In February, just days before gatherings prohibited due to COVID-19, Jason James was admitted as a solicitor in Victoria. For most people lining up to swear their affirmation inside the Banco Court, the ceremony is a time of anticipation and relief. For Jason, it was pure exhilaration ‘I stuttered a little when I went to say something, but I also couldn’t stop smiling the whole day, I think I was the happiest person there.’

Things could have turned out very differently, when at 20 Jason was charged with criminal damage and assault offences.

‘I finished school at 16, earlier than others and I found myself going off the rails a bit. By 17 I had an underage driving charge and I was going further into the deep end in terms of drug use and hanging around with the wrong crowd’, he said.

Waking up in a police cell was a turning point, ‘I remember getting let out of the police station in the morning with a black eye and returning to my parents place. It was really emotional…because I knew I’d really stuffed up and thought my life was over’ said Jason.

He was referred to our Ballarat Deputy Managing Lawyer Melanie Rudolphus, who was then working at a private firm in Werribee.

After experiencing struggles of her own as a teenager, Melanie has a passion for providing representation to adolescents.‘When I was 18 unfortunately I got caught drink driving. It was an awful experience that could have potentially ruined a lot of prospects for me. Fortunately, it was only a traffic infringement notice, but I had to disclose it to the Legal Services Board. That experience has stuck with me and I think it’s an age where a lot of people need support.

Between the ages of 18 and 25 young people are still fairly immature so it’s a really interesting area because you get clients who, if they’re given a chance and put on the right track, can really turn around and not go on to reoffend’ said Melanie.

Melanie says she could identify with Jason’s feelings of having let down his family and wider community ‘We have the same cultural background, an Anglo-Indian background so I understood where he was coming from. As in many communities there can be a lot of pressure on young people to follow a linear path from school to university and not stray from that. And the feelings of letting down your family can be very hard to navigate’, she said.

In court, Melanie advocated to have Jason placed on a good behavior bond and defer his sentence so he could begin to see alcohol and drug counsellors and support workers. ‘I was fortunate to be linked in with really excellent supports, a youth worker a counsellor and Melanie. They really represented a pseudo family for me throughout the situation and helped me make the hard changes that needed to happen’ said Jason.

Complying with bail conditions was challenging for the then 21-year-old, ‘I was on supervised bail for 11 months and went from living a life where I had no concern for the law to one where I worried about every little misstep. I remember being stopped by police when I was in a group of friends because there had been a report of a theft nearby and when they ran up all our names, mine came up as being on supervised bail. I had to stand on the side of the road for twenty minutes until they did some checks and finally let me go. There were also times where I wouldn’t make my appointments because of unforeseen things happening and I was worried it would reflect badly on me.’

Having met his bail conditions, Jason was discharged from his bond with no conviction. But the path to the law wasn’t straightforward. ‘At law school I felt so out of place, my laptop wasn’t new enough, I definitely wasn’t your typical law student. I remember sitting in a criminal law lecture thinking “Nobody knows that I’ve been on the other side,” the stigma of being involved in the justice system was still really present for me years afterwards, so I had periods where I stopped attending and my grades suffered. I really came to a crossroads with it before I decided this was definitely where I wanted and that I deserved to be there.’

Jason graduated with honours and wrote his dissertation on interactions between drug users and the law. Now looking for his first role as a criminal lawyer, he wants to work with other young people who find themselves facing trouble with the law, ‘I want to help the next me. I know there are great criminal lawyers out there, but there's no substitute for shared experience’, he said.

Inspired by her advocacy, Jason asked Melanie to move his admission. ‘I’ve had people mention to me after a good result that they want to be a lawyer one day but it’s very hard for our clients, the odds are often stacked against them finishing school and getting through university, so I was so pleased for Jason and it was a big honour for me to be there and to see how proud his parents were’ she said. ‘I even wrote an email to the Magistrate who originally sentenced Jason and told them about Jason’s progress. They were very pleased to hear about Jason’s progress and that he had really taken the chances offered to him through the court process.’

‘A lot of the time in the criminal justice space all we hear about are the negative stories, but as lawyers we constantly see clients who make positive changes in their lives. One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is to have a client who has lost their way and then through the process of engaging with you and other supports, do a 180 and turn their life around. You just never know, the effort that you put in to help link someone in with services could be the thing that is the pivotal point in their life that changes their life for the better’, she said.

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