‘Why would you work for the defence?’ the prosecutor demands to know across the bar table. ‘Representing drunks, rapists and wife beaters. Come work for the prosecution, we’re the good guys.’ He’s about my age, he’s smug, and he’s trying to put our client in jail. He smirks. ‘Plus we have the infinite resources of the state.’
‘Infinite resources’ is certainly not a luxury afforded to the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency. I was an Aurora intern in the criminal section in Darwin, where it was a good day if the air-conditioning worked and everyone had a desk (though I was assured this would change with an impending office move). Yet what NAAJA lawyers lack in money, they make up for in passion, skill, and pit-bull-like determination. If you’re arrested, these are the people you want in your corner.
It’s well-known that Aboriginal people make up around 80% of the Territory’s prisoners, despite being only about 30% of the general population. Reading the newspapers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that life in the Northern Territory is marked by constant crime, predominately perpetrated by indigenous people. As a result, people in Melbourne keep asking my opinion on ‘how to solve the problem’, as if a six-week internship qualifies me as an expert on indigenous issues. Believe me, it doesn’t.
What I do know is that Aboriginal people get a raw deal in the NT justice system. I’ve seen Aboriginal people minding their own business in public places and getting harassed by the police. I’ve seen Aboriginal people charged with a laundry list of offences, despite causing no harm to anyone. I’ve seen magistrates haranguing defence lawyers just for doing their job. I’ve seen Aboriginal prisoners denied parole for failing to complete non-existent prison programs.
Yet amongst this broken system, I was inspired. I was inspired by some of our clients, who have come from situations of unimaginable disadvantage to successfully turn their lives around. I was inspired by the tireless efforts and tireless good humour of everyone at NAAJA. I was inspired by the way that, despite astonishing case loads and heavy responsibilities, everyone took the time to make a tall sweaty student from Melbourne feel entirely at home. Most of all, I was inspired by the continuing strength and resilience of Aboriginal communities in the Top End.
But I wasn’t just an observer — as an intern, the work I was doing was simply amazing. As well as a constant stream of interesting (and inevitably urgent) research work, I visited prisons, went to bush court, interviewed clients, instructed in summary hearings, toured rehab facilities, shadowed lawyers in the Supreme Court and drafted submissions. Lawyers would ask me about everything from interpreting the Criminal Code to what I thought of their case strategy, and actually listen to my answers. The level of responsibility was intimidating, but incredibly rewarding. Academically and professionally, it was the most stimulating place I have ever worked.
I thought that my first Aurora internship, working at a Native Title Representative Body in the Torres Strait, would be the highlight of my university career. This second one at NAAJA might just have topped it. So if you’ve never done an Aurora internship, apply today. If you’ve done one, apply again. I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Aurora Native Title Internship Program places law, anthropology and some social science (archaeology, cultural heritage, environmental management, human geography, history and sociology) students and graduates in unpaid 6 week internships over the einter and summer uni break at the 15 NTRBs around Australia as well as over 50 other Indigenous organisations working in land rights, policy development, human rights and social justice.
For more information, visit: http://www.auroraproject.com.au