Over the recent summer break I spent 5 weeks undertaking a legal internship through the Aurora Native Title Internship Program and was placed in the criminal section of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (or NAAJA). NAAJA provides high quality and culturally appropriate indigenous legal aid in the top end. NAAJA is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation funded by the Commonwealth Attorney General.
The Internship Program provides law, anthropology and some social science students and graduates with the opportunity of gaining valuable work experience in either native title or other facets of Indigenous law, policy, social justice and human rights. The objective of the program is to provide assistance to these under-resourced bodies, examine why organisations like NAAJA have such a high turnover in staff (80 to 90 per cent a year) and develop ways to encourage future employment.
I have lived in a number of indigenous communities throughout my childhood and as a result had a natural interest in indigenous affairs. Therefore when I first heard about the program through my property law lecturer, Margaret Stephenson, I applied instantly. Before commencing my Aurora Internship I was unsure whether I wanted to practice law and thought that this would be an opportunity to put into practice the skills I had learnt at university and guide my career progression. Following the application, I was then requested to attend an interview, where I selected NAAJA as my preference.
I had a particular interest in working in the Northern Territory because the statistics were quite alarming. There is a vast discrepancy between the number of indigenous and non-indigenous people that come into contact with the legal system. Indigenous people comprise roughly 30% of the population in the Northern Territory, yet represent over 80% of the Territory’s prison population. I wished to gain further insight into the reasons behind these startling statistics.
I first arrived in Darwin and it was hot and humid (as was every day after this!). NAAJA has offices located in Darwin, Nhulunbuy and Katherine and as such, is the biggest law firm in the Northern Territory. The Darwin office is the largest of the three and is separated into three sections – criminal, civil and advocacy. The advocacy section tries to identify and lobby against areas of systemic disadvantage faced by Indigenous people in the justice system. The section also encompasses Community Legal Education and Throughcare, which looks to assist indigenous people reintegrate back into society after time spent in prison. I found that this section of NAAJA was unique and meant that NAAJA provided services which began upon entering the legal system and continued to the transition back into daily life after leaving prison. A Chinese Wall policy also exists between the civil section and the criminal section to avoid conflicts between clients and maintain confidentiality.
On my first day in the criminal section of NAAJA I was asked to do some legal research on a manslaughter case. Talk about being thrown in the deep end! Over the next few weeks at NAAJA my roles and responsibilities ranged from conducting legal research on a number of points of law, prison visits, spending time in the various courts, transcribing electronic records of interview, liaising with court officials, taking instructions and personal details from clients, writing affidavits, compiling comparative tables, formulating new ways to present evidence, examining court documents, acting as a scribe, photocopying, answering phones and a number of other tasks. I was also able to undertake a Cross-Cultural Awareness Training which really enhanced my understanding of Indigenous culture.
NAAJA uses the services of the Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS, www.dlgh.nt.gov.au/ais ). Interpreters who have an AIS accreditation have sat interpreter exams in the relevant languages, ensuring a high standard. There are several hundred Indigenous languages and dialects so these services are crucial. I was also able to attend a landmark case in the Supreme Court which allowed me to witness Indigenous interpreters working with a client who was deaf. It was truly inspiring to witness a man who had previously been found unfit to stand for trial, address the court for the first time.
Bush Court Circuits
During my first week I was also fortunate enough to travel to the Daly River bush court circuit. The bush courts are unique to the Northern Territory and consider matters which would normally be held in a Magistrates Court. My task at the bush court was to liaise with clients, gain their contact details and take instructions. Each client had as little as 5 minutes to speak to their lawyer before going into court so by having me fill out the minor details, the lawyers did not have to waste any of their time filling out paperwork. I really enjoyed travelling to the bush courts because it gave me an opportunity to get to know the clients and gain insight into the societal disadvantages many Indigenous people face in rural communities. I was also able to see a community court take place, whereby the local elders were able to comment on the proceedings and suggest ways to reintegrate the accused into society. The final decision was left to the Magistrate but the comments by the elders were also taken into consideration. There was also a crocodile in the local swimming pool whilst I was at Daly River!
During my final week at NAAJA I was able to travel to another bush court – this time the Tiwi Islands. I remember sitting on the tiny plane with only 2 people on board, travelling through a thunder storm and turbulence, wondering if I would make it through the 15 minute flight! Once arriving at the “airport” (a small shelter shed), I realised why the lawyers had laughed when I asked how I would find them at the airport. The bush court at Bathurst Island provided a stark contrast to the Daly River bush court as the population of the community was three times that of Daly River. It was also a very beautiful place to travel to and once again I enjoyed meeting the clients and hearing their stories.
Christmas time was an excellent time to undertake an internship with NAAJA – we had a Christmas Party, a Strategic Planning Day, a Board Members Luncheon and many more exciting days which enabled me to get to know the NAAJA team better and their views on the work NAAJA does in the top end.
During the weekends I made use of my time off and travelled to Litchfield National Park, Kakadu National Park, and went on a jumping crocodiles tour on the Adelaide River and a fishing charter boat in the harbour of Darwin. I had never travelled to the Northern Territory before so I enjoyed exploring the wonders of parts of Australia I had never seen.
NAAJA has a large capacity to take on volunteers and there were 4 volunteers with the Darwin office during my internship. I thoroughly enjoyed my internship, it was such a unique learning experience which has made me reconsider my future career path and I would recommend it to anyone who is studying law and wishes to gain some hands on, practical experience. The Aurora Native Title Internship Program also helps to facilitate integral respect and understanding for the unique complexities of different people’s cultures.
Applications for the upcoming winter 2012 round of Aurora Native Title Internships will be accepted online between 5th to 30th of March (www.auroraproject.com.au).