A Legal App for International Students: An Interview With RLC Solicitor Sean Stimson

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Relocating to another country is no walk in the park, especially when the local language is not your mother tongue. And for the ever-increasing numbers of international students coming to Australia, they have to contend with learning to navigate local education, employment and rental systems.

And then there’s the system of law. It can be difficult enough for locals to negotiate, let alone a young foreign student, who may have just left their family’s home, trying to understand complicated legal terms set out in a language that’s not their own.

While wage theft is not a crime that only affects students from other countries, there are certainly a number of well documented cases affecting students from overseas. Indeed, the 2015 7-Eleven wage theft scandal involved many international students.

Trying to assert one’s rights when you’re an employee or a tenant is difficult enough when you’re from this country. But, for international students they’ve got the threat of a temporary visa being revoked hanging over their heads – regardless of whether such a threat is genuine.

And that’s why the Redfern Legal Centre has developed My Legal Mate.

A lawyer in your pocket

Last month, My Legal Mate was officially launched at Macquarie University. It’s an interactive app that provides comprehensive legal advice in four key areas that often concern international students: employment, housing, disputes with education providers and sexual assault.

Students from abroad can subscribe to the application via their education provider. And from there they can simply start asking it a range of questions about their tenancy needs, workplace rights and how things should be playing out at school.

My Legal Mate is also multi-language. So, advice is available in English, along with six community languages: Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese. And it’s delivered in a face-to-face format via video streams.

My Legal Mate is all about empowering international students, who can find themselves in questionable situations, especially when they’ve just arrived in the country. And by downloading the app on enrolment, they’re then equipped to seek legal advice, rather than be left wondering.

Keeping students informed

Sean Stimson is the head of Redfern Legal Centre’s International Student Service. So, he’s keenly aware of the issues that students coming from overseas face. In fact, it was a remark an international student made to him that helped spark the development of the app.

The Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) has been around for over 40 years now. And its International Student Service is free and available to all international students studying anywhere in the state.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to solicitor Sean Stimson about the process of putting My Legal Mate together, why it’s so important that such a service is available to the ever-growing numbers of students from overseas, as well as going over some of the extra features the app provides.

Firstly, Sean, the number of students coming from overseas to Australia has risen dramatically over the last decade. What sort of numbers are we looking at?

My practice is a statewide practice. And what we’re currently seeing, is around 266,000 international students enrolled to study in NSW. So, it’s a significant number of students.

If we look at it from a university perspective. The last time I looked at one of Sydney’s best known and largest universities, around 25 percent of its entire student population were international students. And that’s mirrored to a lesser extent by other universities.

What are some of the common legal issues international students face when living in this country?

The fortunate thing with the Redfern Legal Centre is we’ve been in operation since 2011, as a dedicated practice for international students. So, we can go back many years to see whether or not there’s a constant with the legal issues. And there certainly is.

It would probably come as no surprise that the three big issues surround tenancy, employment and disputes with the education providers themselves. Now, education providers do not just sit with the universities. We’re talking about colleges and English language courses as well.

They’re the three big issues. And the fourth – which has perhaps been suppressed or underreported – is sexual assault and/or sexual harassment. That’s our fourth big issue to make inroads into knowing your rights on how best to deal with those unfortunate situations.

How adequate are local laws in protecting the international students that are studying here?

The very short answer is they’re quite adequate. An international student is protected by the same laws as their domestic counterparts. They have the same access to the same laws that we know work in the domestic sphere.

However, where there starts to become more issues associated with international students is the fact that at the core of every student there has to be a student visa. And this visa, for the majority – if not all of these students – is the core issue for them. That’s the item that they want to preserve.

What’s happening is, they’re starting to find themselves in situations where threats are made against them. They’re told if they make a report or pursue legal action for incidents occurring to them, then they will be reported to the Department of Home Affairs and their visas will be cancelled.

Again, that’s from a lack of understanding as to what the laws actually say.

Having said that, there’s certainly some conflict between the laws that protect and some other laws, being the Migration Act. If a student is in breach of their visa conditions – for example, breaching their 40 hours per fortnight working restrictions – it can affect their visa.

And that’s where the problems start to arise with employment issues. Unscrupulous employers coerce students into working beyond those restrictions, and then use that to actually exploit them further.

It’s something that much debate has been had over. The Migrant Workers’ Taskforce has discussed these issues. We made recommendations for changes, as have many of our colleagues as well.

Unfortunately, the recommendations of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce didn’t go far enough. There were certainly some aspects to it that we would support wholeheartedly. But, the crux of the problem remains – that there’s still some conflict between pieces of legislation.

That’s why, even today, media still pick up on wage theft being a significant problem. Importantly, it’s worth noting that wage theft is not unique to international students. It’s something that’s happening across the board.

The Redfern Legal Centre launched the new My Legal Mate app at Macquarie University last month. It provides international students with instant legal information. How did the project come about?

As I touched on in the beginning, my practice is a statewide practice, so those 266,000 international students can access my particular service.

What we found was, we were inundated with clients wanting to make an appointment with us. And quite often, there was some reasonably simple questions being asked.

So, students were wanting to identify their legal issue. And once it was identified, they just needed a little bit of instruction as to how to pursue the matter themselves.

That doesn’t make up the entirety of the clients that we see. Some are incredibly vulnerable, and we pick up those clients, and assist them as best we can.

What we were thinking of was a way that we could educate as many people as possible about their legal rights, and the pathways that are open to them, without them occupying our appointment slots.

One particular client that I was talking to, made reference to wishing that I was his friend. It wasn’t because he wanted me as an actual friend. What he was actually saying was he wanted to have someone that he could just ask a question of, because once he had the answer, he had clarity and direction. That pushed the idea further.

As I said, we already had a clear understanding of the type of exploitation and needs that were occurring from the data we’ve collected.

So, for us, it was really a matter of breaking down those clients that we’ve seen over many years, as well as the type of questions that we’ve been asked, and their regularity, so as to almost predict the questions the next client was going to ask us.

What we saw when we started to overlay that particular theory, was that we could almost pre-empt the questions.

And it was that which made us think, “If we can do it like that, then why don’t we develop it as a piece of technology that’s readily available to all international students in NSW, and indeed, across the nation?”

The app provides information in four key areas. In a practical sense, what’s an example of a situation in one of the areas that an individual can look into?

Let’s go for something very topical: an employment-based issue, like underpayment or an unfair dismissal.

What it allows for the student to do is ask a question. So, they’re presented with a heading: Have you been unfairly dismissed? And that’s spoken to them in their community language, via an interactive video stream that asks them that question.

They’re then presented with a simple “yes” or “no”. Now, there could be a third option, which is “I don’t know”. And if they click on “I don’t know”, they’re presented with an interactive video, which says these are the characteristics of an unfair dismissal.

They’re then taken back to that first page, and they’re able to answer that first question.

So, it follows a series of pathways that are simply yes or no answers. Because trying to get the technology to respond to an audio response, or a written response, was virtually impossible, without throwing millions of dollars at it. And even then, it still would have been clunky.

For us, it was a matter of being able to predetermine, have an explanation of what the problem is and then to agree to that.

It then takes them through that series of pathways. A pathway can lead to three potential outcomes.

The first is, we’ve made the assessment based on the information that they actually don’t have a claim. But, even if it says that, it’s not the end there. We’re not saying, “We’re abandoning you.”

They’re then given the option to still engage with a lawyer face-to-face. If that’s the option that they take our service is still there, or it could be – in the instance of Macquarie University – that they go back to the on-campus services.

If there’s a legal remedy, it’s the same type of thing that I’ve just discussed: speak to us or on-campus, or it gives them the next step. In this case, where we are talking about an unfair dismissal, it would be the Fair Work Commission.

One of the big problems that our clients were experiencing was what the appropriate form or the external organisation to file it with was.

Well, the app then provides that option: Do you want to self-manage? And if they do self-manage, they’re provided with the correct form, which is able to be created on the same device, as well as providing the link to which it is delivered. That entire process is taken care of.

And for international students who are interested in accessing the app, how do they go about doing that?

At this point, it will only be provided through their education providers. And that’s something that we are currently engaging at the state government level and with the VCs at the universities. So, at the moment, we’re showing the value of having the product.

Macquarie University has adopted the product. It’s been rolled out to hundreds of students already. And we can see that they’re using the product for the purpose it was intended.

For them, there were multiple reasons as to why that product is important. There’s that moral aspect to it: their obligation to those particular students. And there are also economic reasons.

From that point of view, we know between 6 and 9 percent of students drop out of a course of study. And there are varying reasons, some of which are legal.

But, more importantly, universities are looking at it from the point of view of “how can we help our students”. And there’s an understanding as to why, if you have a dispute with your education provider, you wouldn’t necessarily want to speak to them about it.

That’s the way they seem to be viewing it at this time. It’s a good resource, that’s in a community language, that steps through four main problems that are associated with student life.

And does the information that’s available on the app stick entirely to those four areas?

In addition to those four main areas, the app actually has really important information about other issues that we see through our practice.

So, that would be, for example, “can I drive on an international licence”? That’s a question we get asked quite often. And if they don’t know the answer it can place them at a significant disadvantage, and from a criminal perspective as well.

Do I need to have a receipt for a bond? What’s the minimum wage? These are a few other examples.

There are multiple questions, which we feel all students should know before they arrive in Australia. And the app gives them that opportunity, as soon as they arrive on campus, to access this information.

Sean, how broad is the range of information covered?

There are around three thousand individual video streams available on the app. So, it’s not just talking across one issue. It’s talking across multiple issues that are associated with those four main areas.

So, you must have spent a lot of time developing the app?

Too much time. It’s taken us the best part of three and a half years to actually get to this point. And it’s the content. It’s how do you simply have a response to a legal question of yes or no. That was the hardest part for us.

We didn’t want to complicate the content. We needed a simple response. And the videos are broken up into as short a sequence as possible, so there’s that understanding. And underneath it, the question is written in their community language.

At the end of the pathway, you can actually print it off. The student has it as a reference point, so if they then go and see a solicitor or someone on campus, they can show how they reached that conclusion. And it allows the solicitor to then say whether it’s correct.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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