Justice statistics in the Northern Territory are startling. There is a vast discrepancy between the number of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people serving custodial sentences. Despite the fact that Aboriginal people comprise a mere 30% of the Northern Territory’s total population, they represent 82% of the Northern Territory’s prison population. Alternatively expressed, 4 out of 5 prisoners in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal.
In light of these statistics, quality legal aid organisations such as NAAJA, which are designed solely for the benefit and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are integral. Despite the constant battles with funding, NAAJA provides a multiplicity of important, culturally appropriate services to Indigenous mob, living in the Top End. I was placed as an Aurora intern in the Advocacy section in NAAJA’s Darwin Office as part of The Aurora Native Title Internship Program. The Advocacy component is responsible for the administration of a range of activities, including law reform, submission writing, community legal education, prisoner support, parole application assistance and Throughcare, a program that is designed to help prison inmates successfully integrate back into the community on the completion of their sentence.
At times working at NAAJA made me feel cynical and frustrated. My perceptions of justice were heavily confronted. It appeared that the system was innately structured so as to disadvantage and marginalise Aboriginal people. I heard stories of police raiding people’s homes in the middle of the night, using unnecessary force and threats to extrapolate information. I saw Magistrates give Aboriginal people excessively harsh sentences, due to their own failure to comprehend cultural practices and considerations. I witnessed Aboriginal people with severe mental health issues go walkabout, due to the failure of corrections to provide successful repatriation services.
Furthermore, the newspapers always seemed to focus on the dysfunctional aspects of Aboriginal communities. They never reported the stories of strength and positivity, like the successful work of the Yugul Mangi collective in Ngukurr or the Law and Justice Group in Lajamanu. They never reported the stories of cultural celebration and survival, like the NAIDOC week march, where thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people walked through the streets of Darwin together.
Yet amongst all the gloom of government failure and the media’s distortion of issues, NAAJA shone like a beacon of hope. I was inspired by the dedicated work of the staff and the awesome, culturally appropriate services that they provided. It was comforting to watch NAAJA’s staff in action. Whether they were writing submissions to government about topical policy issues, rigorously defending a client’s case in court or assisting prisoner’s with parole applications, their job was completed with the utmost conviction and in a way that respects the unique interests of the client. It made me feel proud to be a part of an organisation that was attempting to remedy the hideous injustices of the system.
As an intern, the work I completed was interesting and diverse. I assisted with submissions to government on controversial justice issues, compiled statistics, created and ran community legal education sessions about knowing your rights when dealing with police, shadowed lawyers in the new Alcohol court, visited the prison and attended remote communities to discuss the possibility of setting up a community court. At times I felt confronted by the level of responsibility that had been bestowed upon me, but mostly I felt rewarded and intellectually stimulated.
The Aurora Native Title Internship Program provides law, anthropology and some social science students and graduates with the impassable opportunity of gaining valuable work experience in either Native Title or other facets of Indigenous law, policy, social justice and human rights. I would recommend the experience to everybody who has studied or is studying law, as it helps to facilitate integral respect and understanding for the unique complexities of first people’s culture.
For more information, visit: http://www.auroraproject.com.au. Applications for the summer 2011/12 round are open from 8 August through 2 September on-line via the website.