13 February 2023
Interview #8 – Carolyn Jones
Carolyn Jones is the Principal Solicitor (Harm Practice) at Youth Law Australia, a national community legal centre providing free, specialised, technology-based legal services to children and young people under 25 years. Carolyn has worked and volunteered in CLCs for over 20 years, including 14 years at Women’s Legal Service NSW. Her legal practice has largely focused on sexual, family and domestic violence, family law, child protection and human rights, with expertise in trauma informed legal practice and the experiences of criminalised women including those in custody. Carolyn has also worked as a social worker providing protective, therapeutic and mediation services to vulnerable children and families in rural and remote areas of northern NSW. Carolyn received the Women Lawyers Association of NSW Community Lawyer of the Year award in 2015.
Carolyn spoke about her experience of growing up in regional Australia, how she moved from social work into law, and what it means to embed a trauma informed practice into her work.
KAYLEE: How did you first become involved in social justice work?
CAROLYN: I grew up in a small country town in the seventies and eighties. In smaller communities, injustice is really visible. You often know the families where there’s domestic violence, or when someone at school has been sexually assaulted. The area I grew up in also had a large First Nations community, and there was very clear racism. Country kids often see everything.
At the time, there was also a lot of gender injustice, and I was an angry young woman. I’ve always had a focus particularly on gender and sex, and sexuality justice. I also had a big interest in animal rights and became a vegetarian quite young.
I have community-minded parents who did a lot of community work and volunteering. They really encouraged us to think about how we wanted our community to reflect the world we wanted to live in. Then, when I finished high school, I studied social work at university. Social work is an amazing way to start your education. It encourages you to engage with your own values and belief systems, and to think about the impact that you have on other people.
KAYLEE: What drew you to work with Youth Law Australia?
CAROLYN: It was in part because of my own experience as a young person who was frustrated by adults saying things like, “no, because I say so”, and then not bothering to explain their reasoning. I was pushy about wanting to be included. I kept thinking “what, just because you’re a little bit older, you get to do things and make decisions that affect me, even though I’m clearly capable of participating in that decision making process”. I don’t want to perpetuate a world where young people feel they’re not included, or they don’t have a meaningful opportunity to participate in decisions about them.
Once I finished my social work degree, I worked with children and young people for about seven years. This included working in rural and remote communities with lots of young kids that were in out of home care or coming into contact with police and youth justice. The majority had also experienced physical and sexual harm and neglect.
I then studied law at UNSW, and worked and volunteered at Youth Law Australia for a couple of years, and also completed my practical legal training with them.
Then I went off to do other things, primarily in family law, child protection and women’s safety. Now I have come back to YLA to lead an awesome new practice focused on facilitating opportunities for young people to speak up about experiences of harm, particularly family violence, sexual violence, bullying and online harm. We are using technology to facilitate young people’s access to justice. Obviously kids are online, so we’ve got to go to where the kids are. I like that approach.
Women’s Legal Service NSW at International Women’s Day Rally (Helen Campbell, Carolyn Jones, Liz Snell and Janet Loughman)
KAYLEE: What does a typical day at work look like for you?
CAROLYN: It’s a bit of a mix. Every day, in my role as a principal solicitor, I look at the new matters that come in. Young people can contact us by phone, email, through a webform, or through our live chat service. Kids and their supporters can come and chat to us online about problems, particularly with a maltreatment focus.
The goal is to help young people to seek early legal information and advice to prevent things from getting out of hand. It can be anonymous so they don’t have to tell us who they are, their age, or any other identifying details. We get a lot of questions about age of consent, sexting, swapping nudes and getting in trouble for that. More and more young people are also disclosing that they have had victim-survivor experiences of family violence or sexual violence, or are worried that they may have physically or sexually harmed someone or shared images without consent.
Affirmative consent laws are causing a lot of anxiety for young people. They aren’t really sure if they’ve done everything they should be doing to check consent, and to continue to check consent, throughout their sexual contact with another person.
The work also involves stakeholder engagement, law reform, strategic litigation, and community education.
I am also mindful of supporting young lawyers in the team who are around the same age as many of our clients, and may be experiencing similar issues themselves in their personal lives. We see great insights and energy from our young lawyers, but they’re also potentially at a higher degree of risk because they are working with their peer group.
KAYLEE: What are some of the challenges that you faced in your career?
CAROLYN: The obvious one is gender and sexuality discrimination. When I was working as a social worker, I was working alongside police and youth justice staff who were mostly men. They had a law and order approach that kids needed to be arrested and punished. There was no real sense of, “Let’s step back and look at their circumstances, and look at how the system they have been raised in has impacted them.” I was often belittled, excluded or called a “bleeding-heart feminist”. You probably wouldn’t get away with that so much now. I feel like there’s been a shift.
Since most of my career has been in the not-for-profit space, the lack of long-term funding has always been a challenge. I’ve worked on some excellent peer-reviewed, evidence-based programs, only for them not to have their funding renewed due to changes in government. In saying that, there are amazing people in all sectors doing great work. But we really need long term funding commitments.
A more recent challenge has been getting people to understand the need to embed a genuine trauma informed practice and address vicarious trauma in the legal sector. Right from the get-go, we need to be funded to meaningfully set up the work so that people are well paid, have job security, don’t have to work more hours than they should, and aren’t being exposed to ridiculous amounts of traumatic material and situations, which is a real risk in CLCs. We need to ensure that our staff can practice safely and stay well. Everybody’s experience of risk is different. We need to take the time to know everybody in our team, understand their potential triggers and thresholds, and learn how to manage that.
First Nations Women’s Legal Program, Women’s Legal Service NSW (Gail Thorne, Dixie Link-Gordon, Yasmine Khan and Carolyn Jones) giving evidence at the Inquiry into the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody
This extends to me as well. You can’t do this work for as long as I have and not be affected by vicarious trauma. The supportive practices that I had in place as a social worker are very different to the practices that are in typically in place as a lawyer. So I’m trying to bring the best of social work into legal practice.
KAYLEE: What advice do you have for young professionals wanting to be involved in community legal centres and pro bono work?
Well just do it, really!
I’ve worked for the government, I’ve worked in private legal practice, and I love working for community legal centres. It’s not just a stepping-stone or something to pad out your CV. It can be a career.
I appreciate that it’s generally not as well paid as the other sectors, but CLC’s have great flexibility and amazing opportunities that you mostly can’t access in other sectors. I think that’s certainly why my heart is very much in the CLCs space. They provide the opportunity to be constructively critical of the systems around you, and then advocate to do something about it.
I have also observed more CLCs getting involved in strategic litigation. Most CLCs are not well-resourced and can’t be in court all the time so it is exciting to see a broader range of CLCs identifying public interest cases. It adds extra meaning to individual advocacy to reflect on opportunities to be strategic in your casework and to try and change the way that people think about something, or change an unjust law.
CLC’s are very open and inclusive and encourage everybody in the team to think about what we should be doing and where there are gaps. They’re very innovative and thinking all the time about “what does real access to justice look like?” Think about what motivates you, what your passion might be – you can usually find a CLC that’s working on that. And if not, get into a CLC and push for it because everybody’s voices matter in CLCs.
KAYLEE: What opportunities are there to become involved with Youth Law Australia?
We have a whole range of different options. You can do PLT with us or law students at UNSW can do a 10 week social justice internship placement. We also have students that volunteer with us from any law campus, as well as retired lawyers. There’s an application process on our website.
People can certainly come to us earlier, and then potentially there’s opportunities to be involved with other things. We also have about a hundred and fifty cyber volunteers, who are private lawyers or work for the Australian Government Solicitor. If you end up in a legal career outside the CLC sector and you want to work with us, we would love to hear from you.