Catherine Schmohl

Justice Agencies
Winter 2015

Don’t let the fact that it’s in Australia fool you; I got culture shock when I stepped out of Darwin Airport into a dry 33 degrees, after leaving Canberra in subzero temperatures. It was the start of an adventure that I would recommend to everyone – especially law students with an interest in social justice and exploring Australia. It challenged my expectations and assumptions about access to justice, the experience of Aboriginal people when they encounter the law and the impact of government systems on the most vulnerable in our communities.

​I volunteered at NAAJA – the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency – for five weeks as part of the Aurora Internship Program. I was placed in the Civil Law team and was lucky enough to learn about a range of civil law issues that I had previously not encountered. On my first day, I was handed a pile of client files to read, absorb and work out the next steps to assist the client. The files were varied and concerned housing, consumer, welfare law and police/prison complaint matters, each with their own complexities and challenges. I was able to work quite independently, gathering information from clients and government agencies, then seeking guidance or a second pair of eyes over the correspondence I prepared. I sat in on client advice sessions at the NAAJA offices, in communities and at the Darwin Correctional Centre – which was an experience in itself! The use of interpreters was particularly interesting and revealed the importance of an often under resourced service. 

​Other day-to-day tasks included legal research and attending the Magistrates Court to observe a range of matters – I saw child protection and adult guardianship matters, coronial inquests – including the coronial inquest for Kumanjayi Langdon, who died in police custody after being arrested under the Northern Territory’s “paperless arrest” laws. Observing “bad law” being challenged and vulnerable people being represented to such a high standard was inspiring.

The cross-cultural communication training I received while at NAAJA was a highlight of my time there, and gave me plenty of information to take with me into any future role I occupy. I had not anticipated the challenges that go with struggling to get in touch with a client, or communicating complex concepts to people with English as a second language. It was a balance to draft legally accurate correspondence to clients, while also using plain English and accessible syntax. Coming from a government employment background, this was an invaluable skill to learn! The training also provided insight into Aboriginal history, culture, family structures and language. It has motivated me to continue to learn and encourage my colleagues to also gain an insight into Aboriginal cultural customs specific to our community.

I was lucky enough to go on a trip for client advice sessions in Oenpelli and Jabiru. It was great to meet clients whose file I had worked on or read over and gave me an important insight into how to afford access to justice for people living in remote communities. I was struck by how much people trusted us once they realised we were “NAAJA mob”. It clearly reflects how valuable NAAJA is for Aboriginal people who come into contact with the law and says a lot about NAAJA lawyers. I also encountered “cheeky dogs” and “cheeky buffalo” – not as endearing as they sound!

While staying in Darwin, I managed lots of sight-seeing, went camping on Crab Claw Island, travelling to the Tiwi Islands, Katherine Races and Litchfield National Park. I went to shows at the Darwin Festival, countless markets and swimming at Berry Springs and Litchfield. I met so many interesting travellers, other Aurora interns, people living in Darwin for work and locals. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, reflecting the relaxed Darwin lifestyle. Be aware that everyone will warn you about crocodiles, but I did not see one until my last day when I went on a croc jumping tour!

I will definitely be back in the Top End again soon – it has been a fantastic experience and I would love to volunteer/work for NAAJA or another NT org in the future. A huge thank you to both Aurora and the NAAJA Civil team for facilitating this experience. I can’t recommend Aurora internships highly enough – all junior lawyers should do one. Applications for the winter 2016 round of internships will be open from 8 March through 1 April 2016, apply online at: