This summer I spent six weeks in Darwin undertaking an Aurora internship at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). I can honestly say it’s the best thing that I’ve done since coming to law school. I hope to give you some insight into my time there, and to inspire you or someone you know to apply for an Aurora internship.
NAAJA is the main Aboriginal Legal Aid service for the Top End of the Northern Territory, with offices in Darwin and Katherine. The Civil team, in which I was placed, covers a range of legal issues including tenancies, welfare rights, child protection and Victims of Crime Assistance. NAAJA also provides criminal defence and support for Aboriginal people charged with a criminal offences, and conducts policy advocacy and community legal education. It is a well-known organisation, and is hard to miss with its huge painted facade and palm trees on the main street of Darwin.
During my internship, I worked on many different matters. A particular highlight was helping out on a test case challenging a controversial piece of NT legislation, the Alcohol Protection Orders Act 2013, in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. NAAJA sought to challenge the validity of this Act on the grounds of racial discrimination and unreasonable exercise of executive power. I certainly came to appreciate my knowledge of Admin, Consti and Human Rights Law; being able to follow the barristers’ complex answers to the judge’s testing questions. Finally, all those hours spent studying seemed really worth it!
During the hearing, I was the go-for person. It was my job to collect various documents during the hearing, and also to drive the plaintiff to and from court. The plaintiff was a friendly man from Tiwi Island. I observed that he and the instructing solicitor had a close working relationship, which meant that he was engaged in the court process and appreciative of NAAJA’s work.
Unfortunately the judge was not convinced by NAAJA’s arguments, and the application was dismissed. As we left the court room spirits were low. By the time we reached the door of the court house, however, the solicitors and counsel were already plotting the Appeal! I was humbled by the support the lawyers showed for one another, the sense of solidarity in the office, and the continued acknowledgement of the practical injustice of this legislation.
Apart from working on the test case, I attended to many other interesting tasks. I actually felt useful when the lawyers used my research, and listened to my opinions about things like interpretation of CCTV footage, or the merits of filing a particular defence.
I attended the Magistrates’ Court, and watched various NAAJA lawyers appear before tough magistrates. I enjoyed interacting with clients by sitting in on meetings or accompanying them to the Centrelink office. Another highlight was attending training at the Aboriginal Interpreter Service and participating in a role play whereby I acted as the interpreter. I now appreciate the importance, and skill, of Aboriginal interpreters.
I spent nearly two days undertaking document discovery at the Northern Territory Government Solicitors’ Office. It was interesting to experience the “vibe” of a public service office, which was significantly different to the community legal centres and NGOs I have volunteered in. My eyes were certainly opened to the realities of the Northern Territory child protection system, and to issues surrounding vicarious trauma and emotional pressure on lawyers.
Darwin is a lot of fun, and along with the other interns, I often felt like I was on a tropical holiday. I loved the weekend markets, which sold a myriad of delicious and unfamiliar Asian foods. Darwin has a surprising amount of entertainment. I attended a Paul Kelly concert, and a very kooky gay nightclub featuring Aboriginal drag queens mocking Australia Day and Aussie bogan culture. I also spent a couple of the weekends traveling to Litchfield National Park to seek some relief from the tropical heat in the pristine swimming holes. I made some good friends with other interns and Darwin locals, and definitely feel like I have expanded my “professional network”.
While going about this lovely little tropical intern-holiday, I was constantly reminded of the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. In the NT, Indigenous disadvantage and racism are real, and in your face. It is impossible not to witness the homelessness problems in the city, intoxication in public, racist remarks muttered under people’s breath in the supermarket, or police tormenting Aboriginal people at the bus stop. I definitely think there is something motivating about being so proximate to the situation which you are working towards improving.
Dramatic funding cuts currently face Aboriginal legal services all around the country. These cuts are terrifying, considering how underfunded the services already are, and how many Indigenous people will no longer have access to a lawyer. The justice system in the NT is clogged with Indigenous people. This is a fact that needs to change. However, funding cuts will only serve to exacerbate existing problems. Without legal representation, even more Aboriginal people will end up in jail for longer, even more children will be taken away from their families, and even more racially discriminatory laws will remain unchallenged.
Now that I am back in Melbourne, my comfortable inner city life feels quite removed from the simultaneous calmness and tumult of the NT. I will always remember my time in Darwin very fondly. Who knows, maybe I will go back to work there one day. The Aurora Project and NAAJA have certainly opened my eyes to an interesting area of work.
If you are looking to get out of Melbourne to do some work experience which is fun, interesting and different, I recommend applying for an Aurora internship. Applications are open in March and August annually on-line via the Aurora website at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram.
Applications for the winter 2015 round are currently open through 27 March 2015.