Dena Paterson

Organisation: 
Stream: 
Legal
Sector: 
Justice Agencies
Location: 
Darwin
Round: 
Winter 2013

I swapped the cold of a South Australian winter for a four-week Aurora internship via the Aurora Native Title Internship Program, in sunny Darwin at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), the largest legal aid service in the Northern Territory.

NAAJA was established on the 1st of February 2006 when the North Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (NAALAS), Katherine Regional Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (KRALAS) and Miwatj Aboriginal Legal Service (MALS) amalgamated. NAAJA has offices in Darwin, Katherine and Nhulunbuy with a criminal, civil and advocacy section, which operate through a strict “Chinese Wall” policy.

I was lucky enough to be placed in the criminal section of the Darwin office during July, working with a number of passionate lawyers dedicated to NAAJA’s vision of ‘True Justice, Dignity and Respect for Aboriginal people.’

My experience has been invaluable to my personal and academic development. NAAJA provides the flexibility that ultimately enables you to embrace the experience as wholeheartedly as you like, and effectively work as though you are an admitted practitioner (without providing clients with legal advice). Thrown into the thick of things, my first task at NAAJA was to interview and take basic instructions from clients at the Magistrates Court, identify the relevant legislation and penalties and provide this to the duty lawyer to present in court.

Between visits to the Supreme Court and Magistrates Court I undertook a diverse range of stimulating and complex research ranging from defining certain terms, identifying available defences and potential avenues of appeal, as well as anticipating the scope, interpretation and possible application of new legislation. Rather than merely research one aspect of a case and move on, I was able to become quite involved in the different stages of the cases progression. The lawyers genuinely sought and respected your opinion on the research, as well as feedback on their case. This was rather daunting at first, but was an incredible and rewarding experience.

The highlight of my experience was the unique opportunity to attend the Bush Court in Jabiru and Oenpelli during my final week. The Magistrates Court circuits through different Aboriginal communities in an attempt to provide access to justice. During the three hour drive to Jabiru and additional half hour to Oenpelli I was able to admire the beautiful Australian terrain, even seeing wild brumbies and saltwater crocodiles. The drive also allowed me to reflect on my time at NAAJA, which I am still marveling at. Having often heard of the disadvantages and injustice of indigenous communities, to experience it first hand was an eye-opening and inspiring experience.

My experiences at NAAJA truly highlighted the importance of access to justice and the positive influence one can have in providing social justice. Whilst people often perceive the legal profession as a money machine, it is in fact a means of making a difference in a number of ways, be that from representing the disadvantaged to influencing policy. The work of NAAJA as an Aboriginal Legal Aid Agency was incredible, as reflected in its recognition by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The sheer work volume alone was astonishing. Even at the Bush Courts, where lawyers had little more than 5 minutes to meet with clients, the respect and commitment to providing quality legal advice was remarkable.

I would strongly encourage all students and graduates from law, anthropology and social science to apply for an Aurora internship. The internship provides an incredible opportunity to get involved and gain vital experience in the legal sector. Aurora offers invaluable placements at 15 NTRB’s and over 70 other Indigenous organisations, like NAAJA, as well as other policy organisations, during winter and summer. Applications are now open for the summer 2013/14 round, and close the on 23rd of August. Please visit: http://www.auroraproject.com.au to apply or for more information.