Having studied Aboriginal issues and affairs from both a historical, legal and social perspective at University I naively thought I knew what to expect when embarking upon a 6-week internship with the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) in Darwin as part of The Aurora Native Title Internship Program. It’s abundantly clear that what I knew six weeks ago was significantly less than what I know now.
The state of Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory is startling, and it was apparent to me that not everything is being done to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. What I saw was a lack of support services for Aboriginals, a lack of understanding between the judiciary and Aboriginal culture, and a presence of paternalistic legislation targeting only the Aboriginal population. As a Victorian with a familiarity with the Koori Courts, the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement and other Aboriginal initiatives I found it disappointing that the Territory Government lack similiar initiatives and programs. They instead choose to impose white law and ideals on Aboriginal communities who have differing language, culture and needs.
NAAJA gives Aboriginals in the Top End access to the justice system by providing them with legal services in both civil and criminal matters, as well as legal education. All solicitors and staff undertake cultural training and thus are able to adequately communicate with and understand the needs of their clients.
NAAJA is divided into three sections – the Criminal Law Section, Civil Law Section and the Advocacy Section. The Advocacy Section includes Community Legal Education. A Chinese wall policy runs between the Civil and Criminal sections, which means both sections operate independently and information sharing is barred. This is to ensure confidentiality between clients with conflicting interests and to avoid conflicts between clients. Clients may be referred from the criminal section to the civil section.
Due to the vast dispersion of Aboriginal communities in the Top End, NAAJA lawyers frequently travel to remote communities such as Oenpelli, Maningrinda, Tiwi, Wadeye and Groote Island to visit clients and conduct legal clinics. This gives clients an opportunity to access legal advice and representation whilst living in an area where access to a NAAJA office is near impossible.
I undertook my internship in the Civil Section of NAAJA. The Civil Section of NAAJA handles civil matters such as police complaints, motor accident compensation, worker’s compensation, coronial inquests, victims of crime compensation and family law.
Working in the civil section challenged my confidence in government run bodies such as the NT police force and the NT prison system. I spoke to clients who had been racially abused and forcefully handled by members of the police force in situations that did not warrant such behaviour. I read coroners’ reports outlining systemic failures of the Territory’s medical prison system resulting in preventable deaths in custody. I spoke to clients who had had their possessions seized by the police in situations where they were involved in the offending behaviour. NAAJA was able to assist these clients with their claims, and in doing so hold such bodies accountable.
The opportunities I was given at NAAJA far exceeded my expectations. I was tasked with drafting police complaints, sitting in on client interviews and asking questions where appropriate, researching Aboriginal Deaths in Custody based on coronial inquiries with the intent of making a complaint and researching the law. This challenged and enhanced my practical legal skills and knowledge, as well as my understanding of Aboriginal issues and culture. I also developed an understanding of how to appropriately communicate with Aboriginal people in the Top End.
In the third week of my internship I flew to the remote community of Oenpelli to assist with a NAAJA Civil Law Clinic. Oenpelli is a community that has been targeted by the Northern Territory Intervention. It is a prescribed community and is undergoing significant housing development as part of the intervention. English was not spoken between Aboriginal people and, as I learnt from talking with members of the community, the community is plagued by dysfunction (namely petrol sniffing and other substance abuse). NAAJA does a fantastic job in assisting clients from Oenpelli and representing them in the Bush Court that coincides with the legal clinics. If it were not for NAAJA’s services it is evident that clients would have little understanding of their rights and responsibilities in the justice system. It became apparent that NAAJA’s services are necessary to uphold the rule of law in the Territory.
Staff at NAAJA work incredibly hard and are incredibly passionate about the work that they do. As an intern they ensured that I had a steady flow of interesting work and were eager to teach me about Aboriginal culture and the issues facing Aboriginal communities in the Top End.
The experience offered through the Aurora project gives participants an insight into the issues faced by Aboriginal communities and the factors underlying these issues, coupled with practical legal experience. The Aurora project has challenged my view of the legal system and how it deals with the most disadvantaged members of the community. Participants are given the opportunity to assist over-worked Aboriginal organisations and contribute towards providing Aboriginals with access to justice. This internship has cemented my intention to pursue a career working with Aboriginal communities and working towards Aboriginal justice. I would strongly recommend the Aurora internship program to every law student.
Applications for the winter 2012 round of internships open via the website at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram from the 5th through 30th March