Ten minutes into my Aurora internship at NAAJA (the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency) and I was pacing down the main street in Darwin towards the Supreme Court. It was a very serious case – the NAAJA lawyers and the prosecution had been negotiating the statement of agreed facts for weeks, the accused was on remand, and the mood in the courtroom was tense. The chance to sit in on these proceedings was the first of many opportunities I had to be a fly on the wall in the life of a criminal lawyer defending Aboriginal people in the top end charged with a crime. It was a great start to my internship and the deeper I got into NAAJA, the more exciting it became.
NAAJA is the Aboriginal Legal Aid service for the Top End of the Northern Territory. They’re the biggest legal provider in the Top End, doing around 80% of the work in the Magistrates’ Courts in Darwin and Katherine. It’s split into three sections: Law and Justice, which does policy advocacy and community legal education; Civil, which covers a range of legal issues including tenancies, welfare rights, child protection and victims of crime assistance, and Criminal, which provides defence and support to Aboriginal people charged with a crime; where I was placed.
At my time at NAAJA I saw lawyers giving pleas and hearings in the Supreme Court, shadowed lawyers at the Magistrates’ Court and down to the cells. I was given pithy, interesting research tasks on challenging areas of law. I sat in court the days after I did the research and heard the lawyer presenting what I’d done to the Magistrate. I went with lawyers out to ‘bush court’ in beautiful Kakadu national park, where I saw the Magistrates’ Court sit in a rickety council building, with the NAAJA office in a kitchenette, and clients waited for their cases to be heard while milling around in the courtyard.
I worked on many very serious cases – manslaughter, serious assaults, and even a murder brief – as well as a lot of minor cases. In some ways, these less serious cases could be just as interesting as the serious ones, as they were often cases where prosecution seemed ridiculous – charges for ‘interrupting religious practice’, or theft of items worth basically nothing - usually food by kids who didn’t have enough to eat, or bottles of grog by people physically addicted to alcohol.
The interplay between Indigenous disadvantage and the criminal justice system is extremely complex. So many aspects seem to be fundamentally geared against Aboriginal people. Bail, mandatory imprisonment, tough new alcohol laws… the list goes on. Only China and the US have higher imprisonment rates than the Territory, and Aboriginal people comprise of 80% of the adult and 90% of the youth prison population. These are statistics that I knew intellectually before going to NAAJA, but only began to appreciate the seriousness of when I saw them for myself.
NAAJA have a strong relationship with communities and are well known throughout the NT. Many times I heard people in communities commenting ‘NAAJA? That’s our mob!’ In times where many communities have constant turnaround of staff leading to lack of trust of institutions, it was a real privilege to be working with a group that have such an established presence and high level of trust.
Interning with NAAJA was an experience that shook my worldview and will undoubtedly have profound influence on my future. I learnt more in 4 weeks than I have in 3 years of law school – I saw things that I felt strongly were deeply, profoundly unjust, and people that put their whole into giving the best defence to those injustices that they saw.
The Aurora Internship Program offers internships during the winter and summer university breaks. If you’re a law, social science or anthropology student, you should apply – you won’t regret it. Apply and find out more at www.auroraproject.com.au. Applications for the winter 2015 round will be open in March 2015.