I started out at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency in late November as part of the Aurora Native Title Internship Program. I had just finished two weeks of exams and had immediately packed my bags and flown to Darwin. NAAJA is a government funded organisation that provided indigenous legal aid to people across the whole northern region of the Territory, and has criminal, civil and welfare rights sections. There are three offices; Darwin, Katherine and Nhulunbuy, and I was placed in Darwin. Despite my preference being for the criminal division, I had been placed in the civil section of the Darwin office and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had a pre conceived notion that civil law was dry, boring, and the domain of old men squabbling over contract clauses. I had no idea how it could possibly relate to Indigenous issues.
By then end of my first day, I knew exactly how it related to Indigenous issues and why it was so important. The civil section deals with superannuation claims, centrelink disputes, police complaints, motor vehicle accident compensation claims, medical negligence claims, victims of crime compensation claims, child protection matters, and adult guardian matters. These are surprisingly common issues in Indigenous communities, which are all too often shadowed by the high rates of crime, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. My time at NAAJA showed me another side of Indigenous social justice, one that is much easier to amend.
The work that I undertook whilst on placement was so varied and interesting. I never knew what I was going to be asked to do next, and I loved the work. In previous work experience placements, I had been asked to do the usual; photocopying, making coffee, filing, basic administrative tasks. Here at NAAJA, my first day saw me working on a case file for a victim of crime. The man had been stabbed, and was awarded compensation. I was asked to go through the file, double check the legislation, and decide whether or not I thought the compensation was an appropriate amount.
As the weeks went by, the work got more interesting, more time consuming, and more difficult. I had research tasks that ranged from finding case law on old legislative provisions, and relevant medical procedures, to putting together policy guidelines for working with children and finding fines recovery statistics for a presentation to the Attorney-General. I went to court many times and observed the lawyers in child protection matters and adult guardian matters. I was tasked with going to the court registry to view a child protection file and take notes on what happened in the hearings, which proved to be the most frustrating task I undertook at NAAJA.
I had to ring the court registry multiple times, make appointments, obtain relevant Authority to Act forms, and then go through each file to try and determine what happened. The court registry staff didn’t make my job easy, and all of a sudden I was learning what it was like to be a lawyer. Sometimes the work is frustrating, and sometimes you don’t get the answers that the client wants to hear, and sometimes the answer is, ‘I’m very sorry, but we can’t help you’. All of this was a valuable learning curve for me, because at university, there is always an answer to the assignment, and there is never a delay, or an unexpected interruption.
The highlights of my internship were the times I got to go out with lawyers to do prison clinics, civil clinics, remote bush clinics and to sit in on client interviews. Actually interacting with the clients was the best and most valuable part of my learning at NAAJA, and it really made me appreciate the role of the lawyers a lot more. The trip to Daly River was very interesting, and I was a little surprised to find that our ‘office’ was little more than the table and chairs under the shed of the local council building. There was no privacy, no fancy computer equipment and no fans or air conditioning!!
Adding to these challenges was the fact that most of our clients did not turn up, and we then had to go looking for them. Some of them still could not be found. The clients were often impeded by language barriers, and we had to make sure we explained everything in a way they understand whilst still conveying the relevant information. Watching the way the lawyers switch from complicated legal terminology whilst in the office to short sentences with brief explanations, sometimes using Indigenous slang words was very interesting, and at times entertaining.
I have greatly enjoyed my time at NAAJA and have learned a lot from the lawyers I have worked closely with. My expectations of civil law have been completely blown out of the water, and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work at NAAJA. Applications for the winter round 2014 will be open from 3 March through 28 March, apply online via the Aurora website http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram