Liam Meagher

Justice Agencies
Summer 2010

The state of Aboriginal affairs is impossible to avoid in the Northern Territory. Whilst throughout most areas of Southern Australia, one can happily ignore such issues, I found out quickly that few people in the Territory can or do.

Indeed, right after I mentioned that I was in Darwin for a volunteer internship with North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), everyone, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, was eager to give me their opinion on ‘what needed to be done’. Many of these opinions were largely based on people’s perceptions of Aboriginal people living in Darwin’s Long Grass, with no understanding of the social, political and historical forces that have created the problems faced by Aboriginal people today.

Hopefully, the internship at NAAJA, arranged through the Aurora Project, served to clarify the issues, their roots and the plausibility of ‘solutions’ suggested. In this article I do not wish to spell out my thoughts on these subjects, but hope to explain my experiences at NAAJA, and how such an internship can provide provoking insights and stimuli to shape one’s thoughts on these subjects.

NAAJA aims to provide high quality and culturally appropriate legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons in the northern area of the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people compose approximately 30 per cent of the Territory’s population. About 60 per cent of Aboriginal people in the Territory speak an Aboriginal language at home. Meanwhile, the prison population is approximately 85 per cent Aboriginal, leaving NAAJA with a monumental responsibility.

NAAJA also has an Advocacy Section, which, in collaboration with the lawyers, tries to identify and lobby against any areas of systemic disadvantage faced by Aboriginal people in the justice system. Out of this section also operates a Community Legal Education Program, Throughcare, which looks to assist Aboriginal people in their transition from prison to life ‘outside’, and a Prison Support Officer.

I spent the majority of my internship researching for, and preparing submissions and letters within the Advocacy Section. This section works in collaboration with the lawyers in the criminal and civil sections, to identify any systemic issues that require attention. On major issues, the section will also work in conjunction with the 12 members of the Board, who are all highly respected members of Aboriginal communities in the area. The Board determines NAAJA’s position on such important issues.

Some of the major issues I was able to assist with the preparation of included NAAJA’s response to proposed changes to the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the intervention), an issues paper on ‘The Unintended Consequences of Fines on Indigenous People’, NAAJA’s submission to the Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia and a submission addressing proposed changes to suppression of information laws.

Although NAAJA’s submissions address primarily Aboriginal persons’ contact with the justice system, working on these submissions gives insight into a broad range of legal and non-legal issues facing Aboriginal Australians. One such example is the high rates of hearing illness amongst Aboriginal Australians, particularly those living in remote areas. It also displayed how issues of remoteness, language, and cross-cultural communication can infringe upon the effective provision of legal services. Thus, the necessity for bush courts, reintegrative justice schemes, a large interpreter service and community legal education schemes.

Community Legal Education
I had a very brief introduction into the Community Legal Education (CLE) scheme run out of NAAJA’s Advocacy Section. This program aims to deliver culturally appropriate legal education material and information to Aboriginal communities. CLE is seen as the first step in the access to justice. The CLE team make materials, such as pamphlets and DVDs, often translated into the local language, on a broad range of issues. Issues covered include, people’s rights when they are taken by the police, different types of AVOs, the promotion of restorative justice schemes and explanations on the meaning of court language.

I visited one remote community with the CLE Officer, at Daly River Community. This experience introduced me to the different services offered in this community, a clinic, a women’s centre and a sports and recreational centre. The CLE scheme works closely with such centres, to whom the materials are often most useful, and where information sessions can be run. Being able to talk to the people at these centres exposed some of the communities’ problems, and some of the positive work being done to remedy these.

Prison Support Officer
I spent most of my final week at NAAJA with the Prison Support Officer in Darwin Correctional Centre. Amongst other functions, the Prison Support Officer tries to assist prisoners to contact legal services, to maintain contact with their communities, to assist reintegration into communities, in the preparation of parole reports and to identify any possible systemic issues in the system. This service is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women, and for juvenile offenders in incarceration.

This experience exposed some of the wekanesses in the correctional system, particularly within the parole system. One function I performed was to document case studies which revealed systemic issues within the correctional system. These included issues such as, the failure to provide interpreters for parole reports, the failure to assist people with mental illness post release, which often leads to re-incarceration, and the failure of some parole officers to satisfactorily fulfil their duties.

The experience offered through the Aurora Project is a fantastic way to contribute to what are generally extremely overworked organisations, while also getting some great insights into broader issues. It also provides an insight into the functioning of the justice system on a practical level, and stimuli to consider what role you want to play its functioning.