Melis Rutherford

Summer 2020

As a final year Arts/Law student, I was motivated to apply for the Aurora Internship Program because of the distinct lack of focus on Indigenous affairs and the impact of colonisation on the law throughout my education. As such, the prospect of being placed on an Indigenous-controlled legal internship was very appealing. I was also excited to gain practical legal research skills and deepen my understanding of the native title and land rights systems, as I am interested in learning about alternative legal careers in the social justice sector.

The Aurora Project was developed in 2006 in response to a report into the professional development needs of Native Title Representative Bodies and has now expanded to include broader areas of Indigenous affairs. The Internship Program places students and graduates in Native Title Representative Bodies, Prescribed Bodies Corporate and other organisations working in policy development, social justice, all with an Indigenous focus, around all of Australia. Not only does the internship provide invaluable and practical experience to help students and graduates sharpen their legal skills, but also provides much needed assistance to often underfunded, under resourced and overworked organisations.

I was lucky to be placed at the Agreements Treaties and Negotiated Settlements (ATNS) Project in Melbourne, working remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions. The ATNS Project examines treaty and agreement-making with Indigenous Australians and the nature of the cultural, social and legal rights encompassed by past, present and potential agreements and treaties. Professor Marcia Langton launched ATNS in 2002, and it is now led by a team of multidisciplinary researchers and partner organisations, including other Indigenous organisations.

Undertaking this 6-week internship with ATNS has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my time at university; it exceeded all my expectations of this experience. From the very first day I was consistently given interesting, challenging and varied tasks that allowed me to make a tangible contribution to the ATNS project. I predominately worked on updating the ATNS database on different pieces of legislation, agreements and case summaries. Importantly, I was able to develop my ability to translate complex legal language into plain English. This has been such a valuable skill which I will need for the rest of my legal career, and I underestimated the value in it until I began working with ATNS. Drafting these summaries also enabled me to become familiar with the structure and content of different types of complex agreements.  I also made substantial contributions to the ATNS website, including summaries on the differences between state and national jurisdictions’ land rights systems. Another highlight of this experience was the flexibility and independence I was given in choosing what work I wanted to undertake. This gave me the opportunity to research into specific aspects of the native title sector that reflected my interests, such as environmental justice and sustainable land management.

 My supervisors at ATNS went above and beyond to make sure I felt supported and valued, consistently providing me with guidance when editing my work. I am grateful for their hospitability and warmth throughout this internship, and the opportunity ATNS provides its interns. The ATNS Project was a great introduction to the native title sector, and I would recommend applying for an Aurora internship to any legal or social sciences student or graduate interested in native title, Indigenous affairs and/or social justice more broadly.

More information about Aurora Internships can be found on their website at  Applications for the winter 2021 round will be open in March 2021.