The Law Streetwise Law is a community based educational project that I set up in June 2014. It involves conducting workshops in schools and youth clubs teaching young people about various aspects of criminal law, such as stop and search, advice on communicating with the police, the powers of the police and the rights of the individual, joint enterprise and the implications of obtaining a criminal record.
I decided I wanted to become a lawyer after watching a Nelson Mandela documentary in 2003. I learned that Mandela had studied law in order to teach the township people their rights. That seemed to me to be an excellent reason for being a lawyer so that’s what I set out to do.
By the time I had qualified as a lawyer, some years later, and was busy representing multiple clients in court every day, I had almost forgotten the reason I decided to study law in the first place. But one day, when representing a number of clients in the youth court, the plan came back to me.
The youth court can be a depressing place. For most young people, the drudgery of waiting for hours to be seen in court, not improved by daytime TV blaring in the background, is a punishment itself. I always thought, what a waste; they should be somewhere else, doing something better than this. As a criminal defence lawyer although the job is fundamental in protecting the rights of an accused against the power of the state, when dealing with young offenders I often questioned whether there was not something more that could be done to prevent young people entering the criminal justice system in the first place.
It struck me that these young people, who were, due to a variety of reasons, susceptible to being drawn into interactions with the police and criminal activity, would benefit from having some criminal law education. Perhaps if they knew the law relating to some of the criminal offences, the risks and consequences of certain activities, what powers the police have, and what rights they have as individuals, this could help them make better decisions. It could prevent interactions with the police escalating, and for some of them, it might prevent them ending up in court at all. This is when the idea for Streetwise Law was born.
This summer, I contacted a number of youth organisations and started conducting workshops. In relation to stop and search I inform the young people that they don’t have to tell the police their name or other personal details if they are stopped and searched. On the contrary, the officer is obliged to tell you their name and the station where they are from. Although an officer does have the power to stop and search anyone, this power can only be exercised if they have a good reason to suspect that the person something has on them they shouldn’t. Wearing a hoodie for example, is not a good reason, nor is knowing that the person has been arrested before, or has previous convictions. The officer must tell the person they are stopping the grounds for searching them, what power they are using and that they are detaining them in order to search them. If they do not comply with these rules, it could be an unlawful search.
I also teach the young people that if they are in a group and some members of that group become involved in criminal activity, like robbery or fighting, they could also be implicated in those offences, under the ‘joint enterprise’ principle; a principle that disproportionately affects young males, who tend more than any other group, to hang around in large, disorderly groups. Simply being at the scene of a crime, without any active participation, is not enough to render someone guilty of that crime, but it could certainly be enough lead to an arrest and even being charged.
It’s also important to inform young people about the implications of having a criminal record. There is also a common misconception among young people that once you turn 18 your criminal record is wiped clean or that any convictions you get as a youth will not come up on a criminal record check. While it is true that ‘spent’ convictions should not come up on a standard criminal record check, an enhanced criminal record check, required by increasingly more employers, will lead to disclosure of all convictions, spent or otherwise, for ever.
All the schools and youth clubs I have contacted so far have been very keen to engage with the project and consider it very important for the young people to be informed about these issues. I am currently running the project alone but hope to expand the project in the future to include more people and more subject areas. I also hope to make some short films for the project with the assistance of the young people. Overall, the young people seem to benefit from learning the law and having the opportunity to speak to a lawyer about the profession and the criminal justice system, and I get to do what I set out to do – teach people their rights.
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @coolvibes77. Streetwise Law is @Streetwiselaw1.