Native title law is incredibly complicated and fraught. It carries with it a history of oppression that permeates its operation at every turn. The lawyers that work in this sector, as a result, have to not only navigate a very technical legal system but also manage and develop relationships with their clients, who may understandably have misgivings about parlaying with institutions that have repeatedly worked to persecute them and their people. I think this is what makes native title law interesting, important and ever changing. It is an area of law through which the state is trying to right past wrongs, whilst operating within the confines of the same system that perpetrated them.
My month as an Aurora intern at First Nations Legal & Research Services (FNLRS) in North Melbourne demonstrated these tensions and difficulties to a tee. I went into it after returning from six months abroad on exchange and didn’t really know what to expect. First Nations is the only Native Title Representative Body for Victoria, and as a result their legal team is quite large and definitely busy. The lawyers are split into teams, covering geographical regions within Victoria, and the claim groups that fall within these areas. A team of historians and anthropologists are also employed at First Nations, conducting research into borders and genealogies, fundamental to establishing the continuing connection to land required under the federal and state native title legislation. In this way, the work conducted at FNLRS navigates both the legal and historical, in beautiful harmony; this makes for a fascinating workplace.
Whilst many of the Victorian Traditional Owner groups have native title determinations under the federal act already, the more novel Victorian settlement process has opened up new opportunities for recognising the native title rights and interests of these group, and offering some recompense. Other developments, like the recent Timber Creek case in the Federal Court, will pertinently affect First Nation’s work. Whilst First Nations’ predominant role is furthering claims under the Native Title Act and the Traditional Owner Settlement Act, the organisation shares a building with the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations, who have been and will continue to be involved in topical issues like the treaty talks that will be properly kicking off after the passage of the Advancing the Treaty Process bill. An internship at First Nations does, therefore, feel like taking part in an excitement moment in history.
During my short month, I was offered countless opportunities to immerse myself in the organisation. The tasks I was allocated traversed various different claims and stages in the determination or settlement process and in difficulty. Whilst the work was challenging, and of a nature that no property law subject at university could prepare you for, I always felt supported and was given scope to ask questions and take my time. An open door policy is definitely an aspect of First Nations’ office culture, and the conversations I had with many of the lawyers about their careers, their current claims, Aboriginal affairs and politics generally were highlights for me. I was able to sit in the gallery at the Legislative Council with a team from the Federation and First Nations whilst the treaty bill was debated (and later passed). I was also able to go on country for a few days and attend claim group meetings. There is so much beautiful country in Victoria, and despite having grown up in a rural part of it, I think I am now able to appreciate it even more, and from a different angle.
If you are interested in native title law, an Aurora internship is an opportunity not to be missed, and it is important to remember that native title law is happening in cities like Melbourne as well as in more rural and isolated places. This area of law is not one likely to be covered in extensive detail at university, and as such I could not recommend using an Aurora internship highly enough as a way to gain a practical understanding of it. It was a humbling and inspiring experience in equal measure that renewed my enthusiasm for the law.