Heather Douglas

Justice Agencies
Winter 2014

The Aurora Internship Program facilitated my 6-week placement at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Darwin over July and August 2014.

I approached the Aurora Project looking for work experience in Aboriginal legal aid. After a bit of research and discussion with Kim Barlin from the Placements team at Aurora, I decided that working with the criminal team at NAAJA in Darwin was a rare and exciting opportunity that I could not pass up.

Indigenous Australians represent over 25% of the incarcerated population in Australia; in the Northern Territory, this figure is approximately 82%. In the context of resourcing restrictions experienced by Australia’s community legal sector, these statistics go some way to illustrating just how busy the NAAJA criminal team is. NAAJA is the largest criminal law practice in the Northern Territory. Its dedicated lawyers and support staff work extremely hard to obtain just outcomes for each of their clients.

My work at NAAJA was incredibly varied. Every day offered new opportunities to get involved in the NAAJA team’s interesting workload. Daily tasks included transcribing electronic records of interview with police (EROIs), conducting legal research, obtaining copies of subpoenaed files, and working with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service to back-translate EROI transcripts. When I was not busy in the office, I was encouraged to head down to the Magistrates Court to observe our duty lawyers in action.

An obvious highlight was accompanying NAAJA lawyers to a Bush Court sitting at Wurrumiyanga in the Tiwi Islands for three days. I met many clients and their families, assisted the lawyers interview clients, worked with interpreters and explored the community. The Bush Court offered a unique insight into life in Aboriginal communities, and the challenges experienced by a complex, adversarial, resource-strained legal system seeking justice in those (often remote) communities.  

I was incredibly fortunate as to work with a senior solicitor to prepare for a murder trial that commenced in my last week at NAAJA. As part of preparing our self-defence case, I conducted legal research, met with senior counsel and visited Berrimah Correctional Centre to prepare our client for evidence to be presented at trial. During the trial itself, I communicated the progress of the trial to our client’s extended family and assisted the NAAJA solicitor with ongoing administrative tasks. Sadly I had to leave Darwin before closing arguments, but my solicitor contacted me a few days later to tell me that the jury had returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict!

The experience of living and working in the Territory exposed me to the challenges that Indigenous Australians encounter in Australia’s criminal justice system every day. Some of those include language and cultural barriers, geographical distance from the courts and legal support, and a lack of understanding of laws and legal procedure. I now know that Indigenous Australians are rarely jurors in criminal trials, and that culturally relevant diversion programs exist but are not always suitably embraced by our legal system. The experience also gave me an appreciation of the many positive milestones made in preserving Aboriginal life and culture each day. Importantly, I now have a tangible idea of how I might contribute to the Australian legal system as it relates to advancing the interests of Indigenous Australians.

I strongly recommend Aurora applicants consider an internship at NAAJA. The extended NAAJA family are very welcoming. Everyone was eager to get me involved and make my experience worthwhile. They recognised the benefit of having a balanced internship experience, which extended to giving us cross-cultural communication training, community-specific preparation, and teaching us about historical and geographical factors that have shaped the lives and prospects of different Indigenous Australians across the Northern Territory.

NAAJA’s interesting work aside, the Northern Territory is a reason in and of itself to choose an internship in the Top End. In the dry season, the weather is perfect and there is so much to do. In my short time there I managed to visit three National Parks, attended the Darwin Cup, visited local markets, and caught several shows at the Darwin Festival after work. There are always a few Aurora interns placed in Darwin, so there is no need to explore alone.

Applications for the winter 2015 round of internships open in March 2015. Visit http://www.auroraproject.com.au for more information.