Katherine Werren

Native Title
Winter 2011

In the July holidays I spent five weeks doing an Aurora Native Title internship at the Goldfields Land and Sea Council (GLSC,) based in its Perth office. I was motivated to apply for this internship because, as well as being a unique and interesting area of the law, I felt that it is important for Australian lawyers to have a sound understanding of native title.

The Aurora Project
The Aurora Project aims to enhance the capacity of Indigenous service providers by supplying staff, education, professional development and other support services. It recruits and places legal, anthropology and some social science interns with Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs) and other Indigenous organisations working in policy development, social justice, human rights and Indigenous affairs more generally. The outcome of this is two-fold. Firstly, the often under-resourced organisations are provided with support staff, and, secondly, students and graduates obtain an invaluable opportunity to learn and embark upon their potential career path in Indigenous affairs.

NTRBs and the GLSC
NTRBs are appointed under the Native Title Act to assist traditional land owners in representation, certification, dispute resolution, notification, and all other requirements relating to their native title claim. The GLSC is an NTRB that has responsibility for native title matters covering land extending from Wiluna to Esperance, including the Goldfields area in which a lot of work interferes with the rights of traditional land owners.

The Work
The tasks I was given were varied and challenging and certainly put me on the path of a steep learning curve. Far from the anticipated hours of administrative monotony, I only spent about five minutes at the photocopier during the whole internship. My work, supplied by four lawyers, varied between legal research, conducting a tenure analysis and anthropological summary, collecting documents from the Federal Court, and taking minutes in working group meetings.

One of my research tasks was to summarise decisions of the Warden’s Court in relation to the interpretation of ‘public interest’ under the Mining Act. Another was to write a memo outlining the allocation and distribution of mining royalties between multiple parties to a contract, and a third task was to apply the elements of duress to a crop-access agreement between two parties.

One of my more native title-relevant tasks was to continue the work of a previous intern on a tenure analysis of a large potential native title determination area. The purpose of this was to determine the date of extinguishment of native title on each piece of land to ascertain whether the traditional owners had a right to compensation payments from the State.

I also did some anthropological work which involved mapping the connection pathways of claimants to the land they are claiming as their country. This was fascinating work and gave me an appreciation of the intricacies of anthropology and its relevance to establishing native title.

The Experience
The most rewarding part of my internship was the opportunity to go to Kalgoorlie to attend various Working Group meetings. A Working Group is a small collection of representatives from the whole claimant group that have been chosen to liaise with the NTRB on matters relating to their land. Witnessing these meetings showed me the importance of dynamics between members of the Working Group and wider claimant group, as well as the attitudes of representatives from mining companies seeking to work on their land. These factors have a huge influence on the progress and efficiency of any decision as well as the level of satisfaction or anguish felt by everyone involved.

This internship not only taught me a lot about this area of law and a potential future career path, it also set the bar high in terms of professional aspirations. The staff at NTRBs are tireless, passionate and dedicated and, despite the pressure on time and resources, they are always keen for a laugh.

I strongly encourage all law students to apply for an Aurora internship, even if you’re not sure that native title is for you -there are several others areas to work in as mentioned above. It will be an eye-opening experience as well as a valuable asset to your legal training and you never know, you just might love it.