Emma Stewart

Native Title
Summer 2014

Aurora was established in 2006 to address the professional development needs of lawyers at Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs). Aurora is focussed on increasing recruitment and retention of staff working at NTRBs. One way Aurora strengthens NTRBs and other Indigenous focused organisations is by developing opportunities for all Australians to work in these organisations. It is from this standpoint that the Aurora Native Title Internship Program was set up. Internship intakes happen twice a year for placements at NTRBs and other Indigenous focussed organisations in the areas of legal, anthropology and some social sciences. Internships are full time and run for approximately five to six weeks. These internships provide a wonderful opportunity for students and graduates interested in the area of native title and Indigenous affairs more generally to ‘test the waters’ so to speak while also providing much needed support to these primarily not-for-profit organisations.

I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Internship Program during the summer round of internships this year. As a Macquarie law student I applied for a legal internship and was placed at NTSCORP in Redfern, Sydney. NTSCORP is the Native Title Service Provider (NTSP) for Aboriginal Traditional Owners in NSW and the ACT. The legal team at NTSCORP assists in securing the recognition of native title rights and interests by preparing native title claims, taking affidavits from Traditional Owners, assisting in the establishment of corporations, assisting Traditional Owners in negotiating consent determinations and agreements and attending mediation and case management conferences aiming for a negotiated outcome, but commencing Court proceedings on behalf of Traditional Owners where necessary.

While it is expected that Aurora interns accept and expect a fair amount of administrative based work as part of their internships experience, I can report that this was absolutely not my experience at NTSCORP. Despite being prepared to jump in to a large amount of photocopying, filing, and the like, I soon realised that the majority of my work – and as it turned out, allof my work – was substantive and legal. Looking back, this is understandable given that NTSCORP is a small under-resourced NTSP with a substantial amount of ongoing legal work. My main legal tasks during my internship included researching and writing case notes, transcribing affidavits, researching and compiling claim legal issues, drafting an interlocutory application, sitting in on a Court ordered mediation and research and preparation for claim group meetings. I also attended a CLE on consent determinations and Future Acts which I found really interesting and exciting, particularly the planning and legal strategy that goes into dealing and managing Future Acts within the mining sector.

This experience allowed me to really develop and hone my legal skills and knowledge of the native title system and claim process as it works in practise. I learnt that nothing is ever as simple or as complicated as it appears. Native title claims can go on for decades, involve multiple parties and suffer from numerous and competing issues. The system is not perfect and there have been continued calls for reform. There have also been calls for a re-focus from native title to a focus on pushing for a treaty between Traditional Owners and the Australian Government where a treaty could recognise Traditional Owners and establish a process for the negotiation of rights. In terms of native title as it stands, on 3 August 2013 the Australian Law Reform Commission began an inquiry into native title law. The Commission is due to report by March 2015. The results of the inquiry will certainly be interesting for native title law and practise. Until then the current native title system with all its flaws will continue to be held up by dedicated people sharing the common goal of recognition of traditional rights and interests for Traditional Owners. Real and much needed change however remains to be seen and will perhaps be something that must continue to build over time.