Ella Alexander

Justice Agencies
Winter 2012

Over the Winter break this year I completed an internship in the civil section of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Katherine as part of the Aurora Native Title Internship Program. Katherine is a town South of Darwin with a population of around 6, 000 people. NAAJA provides free civil and criminal legal assistance to Aboriginal people in the Top End of the Northern Territory (a very substantial distance- thus entailing a lot of travel by 4WD and small charter planes by solicitors to reach remote communities).

I assisted solicitors with matters ranging from child protection to media complaints, personal injury compensation to discrimination in the workplace, corporate governance to false imprisonment claims and everything in between. One of the things I enjoyed about the placement was the fact that we never knew what was coming through the door! Civil law at NAAJA basically encompasses everything and anything that isn’t criminal.

My tasks primarily consisted of drafting letters, affidavits and court papers as well as attending client interviews and court proceedings. It was particularly challenging to learn how to explain difficult concepts to clients whose English was very limited in a way that maintained respect yet didn’t sacrifice content or meaning. For example, a particularly challenging instance involved explaining the concept of a ‘5% permanent impairment’ to a client whose English was very limited, who hadn’t been to school and whose native language had no equivalent concept of comparisons.

I found child protection proceedings particularly upsetting. As so few Indigenous carers live in Katherine, children are regularly taken from their community and placed with non-Indigenous carers in Darwin (where no family member is able to care for them). An elderly mother of a client stated that she remembered the Stolen Generation, and that she felt like it was happening again. This drove home to me the immediacy of the traumas of the past for many Indigenous people. I also realised that the best-intentioned administrators of the law can wreak such havoc in peoples’ lives; a lesson I will take with me into practice.

I also had the opportunity to travel to a remote Aboriginal community called Lajamanu. Lajamanu is approximately 6 hours’ drive from any town centre. I was therefore unsurprised by the large percentage of charges on the court list that were related to driving unlicensed/unregistered/faulty cars. However, I was shocked that people would be sent to jail for these types of offences, given the vast distances one would have to travel to get a license/vehicle registration/see a mechanic. It was devastating to realise that alternative sentencing options such as home detention, counselling or community work simply weren’t viable in many remote communities, given the lack of resources to facilitate such things.

In Lajamanu, I assisted with training people from the community to interpret between English and Warlpiri (the Aboriginal language of the area) for a court setting. It was fascinating to hear the ‘kardiya’ (white man) legal system explained from the bottom up, and it soon became apparent that some concepts we take for granted (e.g. impartiality of the law) were foreign ideas to the ‘yapa’ (Indigenous people of the area). It really made me wonder about how much confusion and distress kardiya legal issues must cause in the community!

Throughout the training, I heard snippets about the yapa legal system (such as about their equivalent concept of ‘general deterrence’) and questioned kardiya arrogance in imposing our own legal system on such an intricate, ancient system of laws. Soon enough I was given a skin name (‘Napangardi’) and for the rest of the day the interpreters enjoyed pointing out members of the community who were my sisters, daughters, mothers, etc. by virtue of my skin name.

My experience at NAAJA enabled me to see the kardiya legal system afresh and strengthened my resolve to work with Indigenous people in the future.

If you are interested in applying for an Aurora internship, all of the information can be found on their website at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram. Applications for the summer 2012/13 round of internships are open on-line via the website from the 6th through 31st August 2012.