Four years of learning the black and white letter law from dusty textbooks could not have prepared me for the challenging yet rewarding experience of interning at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). Through the Aurora Internship Program, I was able to undertake a four week placement at the Newcastle Office. The Program places students with various social justice organisations that support the Indigenous sector, and provides them with ongoing support throughout their internship to learn more about legal issues that face the Indigenous Australian population.
Services, such as the Aboriginal Legal Service, are essential in providing disadvantaged Indigenous Australian’s the opportunity for equality in the face of an often unfair legal system. The ALS was itself founded as a shopfront free-legal advice clinic in Redfern in 1970, and was the first of its kind created throughout Australia. The Service was created as a response to the often disproportionate amount of Indigenous convictions and a lack of proper legal support for individuals who were financially and geographically incapable of accessing justice. Since 1971, it has been financially aided by the government and has expanded its offices throughout New South Wales and the ACT.
Due to a variety of factors, there is an over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, both as victims of crime and offenders in incarceration throughout Australia. While Indigenous people comprise of only three per cent of Australia’s total population they make up approximately 27 per cent of the total male prisoner population, a considerably higher female proportion as well and indigenous juveniles account for 51 per cent of all detainees in detention centers.
Through interning at the ALS, these statistics did not just appear as figures, but the personal struggles of each client’s story provided context as to why their life had intersected with the criminal justice system. Interning at the ALS provided insight beyond statistics and case names, and allowed me to see the often underlying social problems that may have caused habitual offending to become entrenched in their behaviour. Furthermore, it has been evident the criminal justice system does not fall in favour of Indigenous clients where often the police target Indigenous people, which is exacerbated by often an insensitive approach to Indigenous issues by judicial officers. I saw this manifest in a peculiar way when I observed an acquaintance from a non-Indigenous background go before the magistrate while at the Local Court observing an ALS client. The magistrate gave him a reasonably light sentence, taking his “good character and family upbringing” as influencing factors. Throughout my time at the Aboriginal Legal Service, I never observed the same leniency given to any of our Indigenous clients and though this experience and others have had my eyes opened to the ingrained inequality present in our criminal justice system. I continued to be impressed how so many clients and their family members had managed to overcome difficult upbringings, with sometimes little parental guidance, poverty, remoteness and lack of access to social services.
The activities that I undertook each day varied, some days I was assisting at the Local Court while others would involve working at the office on client files. No day was the same at the Newcastle Office. At the beginning of the week, I may be helping out with court administration, helping the solicitors in their work or directing clients to the right place. I was able to observe interviews with clients, sometimes this would involve going down to the cells to observe interviews with fresh clients. It has been incredibly valuable to understand the court process in a practical way outside of the Law School classroom. At the office, my roles varied. On some days, I would be calling up Correctional Services, compiling client files and filing out court forms, on other days I would be researching case law and writing up chronologies of cases. The solicitors and admin staff were all more than generous and would sit down to explain the cases and hypothesize different results.
My experience interning at the ALS has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It has reminded me that as lawyers, we are the gatekeepers to justice and that it is our responsibility to ensure that those who are unable to access the law are provided for. Through the incredible mentoring of the Newcastle solicitors and trial advocate, I was able to understand the importance of fair and equal access to justice and the importance of services such as the ALS for Indigenous Australians. At the beginning of 2015, the Joe Hockey Budget cut the Aboriginal Legal Services funding by 4.5%. For the Newcastle Office, this meant that their numbers more than halved and the continuing solicitors had to take on double the work. Fortunately, after significant lobbying with #savetheALS, the funding was reinstated and the Newcastle Office has been able to hire more solicitors. I volunteered both before and after the new solicitors were hired and have been able to see the importance in supporting the ALS. This service has helped change the lives of countless Indigenous Australians and ongoing support is needed to ensure that they get equal access to justice.