Mahnoor Sikander

Organisation: 
Stream: 
Legal
Sector: 
Aboriginal Legal Services
Location: 
Darwin
Round: 
Summer 2017

My internship via the Aurora Internship Program at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) has been one of the most interesting and challenging learning experience I have undertaken in my short-lived legal career! It has required me to directly utilise and refine the legal skills I have accumulated, both at law school and through my various work experience.

What NAAJA offers, distinct from many other organisations delivering legal services, is the opportunity to be thrown head first into a wide array of legal work. Over my six weeks at NAAJA, I worked with the criminal practice, to deliver Aboriginal legal aid services to vulnerable clients. NAAJA is the biggest Aboriginal legal services provider in the top end of the Northern Territory. It has three main teams of criminal, civil and policy. What I find particularly attractive about NAAJA, is its focus on the deeper systemic issues which manifest in the disproportionate representation of the aboriginal community in the criminal justice system. It has been interesting to observe NAAJA’s involvement in the Royal Commission into Northern Territory Youth Detention and lawyers passionately utilising their skills and experience to address institutional failure.

While on placement, I predominantly assisted in the preparation of a trial involving two counts of attempted sexual assault. My tasks included conducting legal research into criminal law and evidence law, drafting legal memorandums for client advice, preparing chronologies and assisting in general trial preparation. While our client entered a plea on the first day of trial which meant I wasn’t able to see my efforts come to fruition in the court room, I was able to jump on board another trial that very week, which is the first trial I had seen in its entirety. This gave me an insight into how the different parties to the criminal justice system- the judge in controlling court procedure, the jury in assessing the evidence and reaching a verdict, and prosecution and defence in advocating for their respective sides come together to play an essential role in ensuring the operation of a fair trial.

Under supervision and guidance, NAAJA also afforded me the opportunity to seek leave and undertake appearances in the Darwin local court for domestic violence orders and sentencing pleas. It was the first time I appeared in court which was an exciting opportunity for me, and also an important experience which provided an insight into a career of advocacy.   

Another unique quality of NAAJA, is its willingness to engage its interns with extensive client interaction. Some of my tasks included facilitating criminal clinics which involved advising clients on the legal process and undertaking prison visits to deliver and receive instructions from clients in relation to their upcoming hearings. It was interesting learning how to communicate with a client group who came from a distinct cultural background, and often faced language barriers. As a result, I quickly learnt to keep legal diction simple and use language familiar to the Aboriginal community.

Last of all, a privilege of working at NAAJA involves attending bush court to privately owned indigenous land. Given NAAJA has jurisdiction over most of the NT’s top end, NAAJA lawyers are required to attend bush circuit to resolve legal disputes within various communities. I was lucky enough to attend bush court at Wurrumiyanga, Tiwi Islands. It was an exciting and interesting experience, one seldom available to ordinary non-indigenous citizens, where I was able to observe how court runs in an informal setting and how the community engages in the court process.

NAAJA not only infinitely refined my legal skills in terms of research, client interaction and time management, but it also provided an important insight into how, at times, Aboriginal culture, values and lifestyle do not sit comfortably with the colonial, common law system. It is this very disjuncture, which NAAJA lawyers are abundantly aware of, and strive to address, that makes NAAJA an incredibly appealing and worthwhile organisation to work.   

Following my placement, I was offered a 12 month contract as a junior criminal solicitor. I strongly recommend an Aurora internship at NAAJA as not only an opportunity which exposes one to the issues affecting the Aboriginal community and the opportunity to refine legal skills, but also as a platform to securing more long term work opportunities in the Northern Territory.

I am grateful to the Aurora Internship Program (see http://auroraproject.com.au/about-internship-program) for facilitating an excellent pathway to working in the Indigenous sector. I would encourage all university students and graduates to pursue such an opportunity. You won’t look back!