Dhurka Maheswaran

Justice Agencies
Winter 2013

When asked during my Aurora interview, what I hoped to get out of the internship, I said “to experience Outback Australia” and “to learn and understand the legal issues that affect indigenous people in remote communities”. In being placed at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Katherine via the Aurora Native Title Internship Program, these core expectations were fulfilled and so much more.

NAAJA is divided into a civil and criminal section.  Confidentiality of both sections is protected by a “Chinese Wall Policy” that runs between the two sections.  I was placed into the NAAJA civil section of the firm that deals with a whole range of issues such as child custody (family law) disputes, police complaints, residential/community housing problems, media complaints and discrimination cases.  I loved the versatility of my work in the civil section, since I was unsure about what area of law I wanted to delve in and wanted to experience all the different areas covered under civil law.  The cases NAAJA deals with are challenging and emotionally confronting. Not getting emotionally involved, frustrated and growing from the traumatic nature of the cases you deal with is all part of the learning experience.   It really highlighted to me the desperate situation many Indigenous individuals face at “The Top End”.  In experiencing some of the areas of civil law, I was particularly drawn to family law and have developed a keen interest in Aboriginal family structures and culture, some elements (such as the closeness of the extended family; social respect norms), I can relate to with my own Sri Lankan cultural background.  My respect for NAAJA lawyers also transitioned from initial admiration of their professional status to being in awe of the inspiring work they do, tirelessly, day to day, constantly being confronted by issues that reflect a system designed to undermine Indigenous Australians.

My most confronting and arduous experiences occurred on a bush trip I undertook in the second week of my placement.  It was my experience in one of the townships, which really gave me a holistic understanding of the limitations of a remote town.  The run-down nature of the settlement, cut off from phone and internet services- residents had to communicate externally via the council telephone; children in rags and malnourished; overcrowded houses with windows smashed in; cars burnt or broken down on the front lawn and the lingering stench of garbage are images that I will never forget.  The experience gave me a sad and disheartening perspective of a “Third World Australia” that I never thought existed. 

A vast majority of NAAJA lawyers are quite young and a few of the lawyers had also been past Aurora legal interns.  Katherine as a whole thrives on an ambitious youthful population (medical interns, nurses, lawyers, teachers), people that come in from all over Australia, in all walks of life, that have somehow made Katherine a home.  In this way, there is quite a social culture in “K-town” and I had the pleasure of attending a few social events (e.g. themed parties- “Global political leaders through history” theme where I came in as Benazir Bhutto; “Dumpling” nights; a film society at Katherine Cinema 3 which screens international films on a fortnightly basis with complimentary cheese and wine).  There is also a weekly market every Saturday morning, which acts as more of a social gathering, an opportunity for people to catch up at the end of the week  for coffee and have exotic brunches such as a spicy paw-paw salad!  The Katherine Show is also a big social event (with rides, cake and confectionary competitions and rodeo shows) on the 19th to the 20th of July and something the whole town looks forward to (to the extent of it being a public holiday on the 19th, only in Katherine).

  Being the first time that I travelled to the Northern Territory, I took my internship as an opportunity to explore “The Top End” every weekend.  On my first weekend, me and fellow NAAJA Katherine Aurora intern of the criminal section, teamed up with two NAAJA Darwin Aurora interns and some other law graduates from Melbourne on a trip to Kakadu National Park, Jabiru and Ubirr.  The following weekend I did a 12km hike through the magnificent and iconic Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk).  My third weekend was spent camping at Lichfield National Park.  The Northern Territory has a natural landscape so rare and beautiful and my weekend trips were astounding.  I also struck a great friendship with the other Aurora intern at NAAJA Katherine and it was nice to find that we had the same interests not only with Indigenous human rights law, but also refugee law and future travel plans to Papua New Guinea!

The NAAJA Katherine community have been like a supportive family, driving my own career ambitions and being such inspirational mentors in the passion they show in their work as a legal aid organisation, whilst dealing with the challenges faced by their limited resources.  My time here is definitely one of the most memorable, significant and distinguished learning experiences that I will take with me.

Applications for the summer 2013/14 round of internships will be open from 29 July through 23 August on-line via the website at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram. For more information on The Aurora Native Title Internship Program, see www.auroraproject.com.au