Jennifer Cohen

Organisation: 
Stream: 
Legal
Sector: 
Justice Agencies
Location: 
Darwin
Round: 
Summer 2014

From January to February in 2014, I did an internship via the Aurora Native Title Internship Program at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). I was placed at the Katherine office in the civil section. My internship provided me with fantastic opportunities to engage with interesting legal tasks, observe court proceedings and a coronial inquest as well as travel to a range of remote bush communities. In addition, I was able to learn about the unique features of Aboriginal culture as well as the complex social issues and confronting political issues facing Aboriginal people in the Top End of the Northern Territory.

The work I did at NAAJA was engaging, diverse and challenging and this experience exceeded all my expectations. From my first day, I was immersed into the world of welfare rights, which involved working with legal issues focusing on tenancy, social security and consumer debt. My tasks were all varied and included jobs such as reviewing and analyzing Freedom of Information documents, conducting legal research on points of law, drafting letters to clients, and drafting submissions to the Commissioner of Tenancies. I also went to child protection hearings at the local court as well as an alcohol treatment tribunal hearing that was conducted via video-link.

My highlights of the internship were visiting the remote bush communities of Yarralin, Timber Creek, Baraunga, Beswick, and Numbulwar. The locations of these communities stretched from areas near the Western Australian border to East Arnhem land near the Gulf of Carpentaria. On most occasions, NAAJA drove the far distances to these communities. This gave me the opportunity to observe the beautiful landscape that involved incredible escarpments and flowing waterfalls. On one occasion NAAJA flew on a charter plan to the community, which was very cool experience as I was able to see the Katherine region from a birds eye view. My responsibilities during these legal clinics were to take notes during client interviews as well as to take instructions from clients who needed assistance. This was very rewarding as I was able to engage directly with communities and I was able to observe how the pressing legal problems materialize in the daily lives of the Indigenous people.

This work was emotionally and intellectually confronting, as my expectations of the law and understanding of Indigenous communities was challenged. The living circumstances within remote communities are strikingly different to an urban setting, as not only is there no access to internet, but most people do not have a personal telephone. Additionally, many communities operate according to strict Aboriginal customs and traditions which influence their interactions and obligations towards each other. It was at times disheartening to see how the law designed from a ‘top down’ approach is often not considerate of these unique circumstances which results in a failure to address the communities’ needs effectively. This was particularly apparent in the actions of Territory Housing, as their eviction policy does not appear to consider the Indigenous cultural obligations to allow people to live in their house when approached. These experiences challenged my expectations of the legal system as I was confronted with how these laws operate in reality.

Living in Katherine certainly added to my overall internship, as it was a refreshing experience to live and work in a small vibrant town. Katherine is a lively community that offers many outdoor and social activities to get involved in. There are also many activities held during the week in Katherine, such as sports clubs, and the film society to name a few. Katherine is also surrounded by beautiful national parks, which offer many walking trails and waterfalls to swim in. I visited Nitmiluk National Park on a few of my weekends and I also went up to Darwin and Kakadu National Park for a weekend.

Additionally, Katherine is filled with energetic and interesting people who have all had unique journeys that have drawn them to Katherine. In particularly, the lawyers at NAAJA were all an incredible group of passionate people who inspired me each day in their dedicated approach to their work. My experience in this environment has strengthened my interest in the community legal sector and has also made me confident about potentially pursuing a career in this sector in the future.

Overall, my Aurora internship was one of the most moving, meaningful, and refreshing experiences I have had to date, as everything I was exposed to and all the people I met all have had a positive and lasting impression on me.  I highly recommend applying for an internship through the Aurora Project as this experience will take you on an adventure, expose you to new worlds, and also provide you with valuable legal experience. For more information about the Winter 2014 intake, visit http://www.auroraproject.com.au.

Applications for the winter 2014 round of internships are open from 3rd through 28th March 2014 on-line via the website at www.auroraproject.com.au