There is genuine need among youth in Hamilton for greater access to free legal information, said Dominic Verticchio, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton, who welcomed the news that a website is launching to offer Canadian teens free legal advice online.
"I think it’s a grand idea and I’m wondering why we haven’t seen it before," said Verticchio.
The free site is called teenlegalhelpline.org and it officially launched on Monday. The website will connect teenagers in need of legal advice with lawyers via online queries.
'They [teens] have just as many rights as everybody else, but they don’t have [as much] access to that information.' —Dominic Verticchio, Children's Aid Society of Hamilton
Moreover, the advice offered on teenlegalhelpline.org will be free, confidential and anonymous, says site founder and executive director Matt Boulos, a lawyer based in Toronto.
To use the site, teens will be asked to fill out a short survey, said Boulos, and indicate what area of law they need advice on. After answering the questions and providing some means of being contacted — either an email address or a phone number — teens submit their question online. They'll receive a response from one of the site’s six volunteer lawyers within no more than two days, said Boulos.
All of the lawyers who work on the site are volunteers, said Boulos. They are mainly drawn from Toronto, though he’s hoping that as the site gains its footing it will attract lawyers from Hamilton as well as other areas.
The site’s scope will be limited initially. The areas of focus will be criminal, family and immigration law at first. The plan is that it will eventually expand to include labour, employment and housing law.
"The site is a good idea because so many teens are looking online for advice," said Mike Ollier, director of legal services at the Hamilton Legal Clinic, which offers advice mainly to adults.
Verticchio is pleased about the emergence of teenlegalhelpline.org because all too often, he said, teens only learn about their legal rights or get legal advice after they’ve been charged with a crime. But it’s not just teens in trouble with the law who will benefit, he said.
There are a lot of teens in Hamilton who are living on their own and who are navigating both rental issues with landlords and employment, Verticchio said, and those youth need to be informed.
"Teens looking for apartments should know their rights under the Landlord Tenant Act," he said.
Additionally, if they are working they should also understand their employment rights.
Boulos started the website after being approached by a teenager in distress two years ago. The young man had been accused of a serious crime and had no idea how to proceed with the police who wanted to speak to him, explained Boulos. The case was subsequently dropped, but the experience indicated a need for such help for teens, he said.
Teenlegalhelpline.org is funded in part through a grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario, as well as private donations. Boulos said he hopes to see the site expand this year and to add to his roster of experts.
In the meantime, the organizers are getting word out about the site among teenagers by contacting social workers who may be dealing with teens that need legal help. Additionally, they’ve called on some teenagers to spread the word about the site via social media.
Verticchio said he’ll pass the website link on to his colleagues in the hopes of spreading the word among teens and youth.
"They have just as many rights as everybody else," he said, "but they don’t have [as much] access to that information."