Sienna Lake

Aboriginal Legal Services
Summer 2017

Undertaking an Aurora internship as part of the Aurora Internship Program was a long-term goal of mine since starting at university. After six weeks spent in the criminal section of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), I began to understand the serious systemic issues facing Aboriginal people in the Top End.

As a ‘Southerner,’ my knowledge and understanding of Australia was quite limited. Growing up in Sydney and studying in Canberra, I had spent very little time around Aboriginal people but was always interested in Aboriginal issues and the politics of government policies concerning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I yearned to travel to what I saw as a ‘more real’ version of Australia, away from the big cities and to the places populated by our First Peoples.

NAAJA is the biggest Aboriginal legal aid provider in the NT, and I was placed in the largest section, criminal law. On my first day, I was thrown into the systematic madness that is Darwin Local Court on a Monday morning, with NAAJA lawyers and interpreters talking to clients in any private space they can find in order to deal with the especially lengthy court lists that accumulate over the weekend. I remember thinking ‘wow, this is so real. This is the most real thing that I have ever done’. Coming from a university that is renowned for research, I craved hands-on experience.

The criminal section at NAAJA is extremely busy and fast-paced. My first week flew by as I eagerly watched cases, undertook sentencing research and helped out wherever I was needed. The fifteen or so lawyers, many of whom are under thirty and not from the NT, are very driven individuals who were always happy for me to tag along with them to court for the day and ask them eager questions whenever they had a break.

My time at NAAJA was spent doing a whole host of activities. I would undertake sentencing research for lawyers so that they could easily access analogous cases when arguing for certain sentences in court. I also organised bail applications, which often involved calling around to different community health clinics searching for aunts and uncles of clients who had agreed to look after their relative if released. Sometimes lawyers would need help in court and I would take notes during their matters.

The task that I found the most rewarding was going to the Darwin Correctional Centre. As the lawyers at NAAJA were very busy, interns were sent to meet with clients to assist in non-legal matters. This involved helping clients fill out forms for Centrelink and rehabilitation programs, as well as taking down subjective information for the judge to take into account when sentencing our client. This was the most significant contact that I had with clients, as I was able to ask them about their family and life history including their education, past employment and drug and alcohol use. I was surprised by how open many of the people were with their personal history, and I truly felt like I was helping them as I recorded it down, whether certain information could alter a jail sentence, or permit them to go to rehab. This also allowed me a greater insight into Aboriginal culture than the legal research aspect of my internship and for that I was very grateful.

The other significant cultural experience I had was when I went to bush court in the remote community of Nauiyu, near Daly River. 450 people live in Nauiyu in an array of government housing. We travelled there for three days, along with the prosecutors, judge and court staff, to hold an ad hoc court in the community centre. This was a very interesting experience as I was able to watch two full days of hearings while getting a taste of Aboriginal communities, and how most Aboriginal people in the NT live.

I was very lucky to be in Darwin during this time because hearings for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Youth in the Northern Territory began in my last few weeks at NAAJA. As an intern, I was involved in the administrative side of NAAJA’s submissions (erasing names of vulnerable witnesses and underage detainees), but it was a great experience to simply be involved and to be able to watch the hearings in the NT Supreme Court, one of the most beautiful buildings in Darwin.

All in all, my internship with the Aurora Project was extremely fulfilling and worthwhile, and I would strongly recommend applying to NAAJA if you are interested in a practical experience that opens your eyes to the realities of legal aid on a daily basis. NAAJA has criminal, civil and community legal education sections.