I was nominated for my Aurora internship at the KCLS Kununurra Office in the summer of 2018, from January to early March. I had little idea of what to expect, but was excited by the prospect of working in a community legal context that offers such a diverse range of services to the Kimberley region. Having just graduated from ANU without a clear idea of what I wanted to get out of my law degree in the future, I saw this internship as a really valuable chance to learn more about community legal practice and Indigenous policy and culture.
There are some things that struck me as central to why I gained so much from my time at KCLS.
Diversity of work:
This internship became a really valuable time for me to grasp the way legal practices are run administratively, understand the holistic nature of community legal work, and gain many of the practical skills central to lawyering that are not covered at law school. I was able to work on a diverse range of legal matters, and as the only legal intern in the office for most of my internship, I was able to complete work for each lawyer in the office. This gave me an understanding of the varying ways lawyers approach problems, manage their matters and provide feedback.
I worked on family law, credit and debt, criminal injuries compensation, tenancy, estates and violence and restraining order matters while interning at KCLS. These were often areas of law I had never previously worked on, so I enjoyed the challenge of gaining new knowledge and skills ‘on the job.’ These were often areas of law I had not considered or worked in before. However, I felt great satisfaction that my work was really helping our clients out, and assisting the lawyers manage their high work load. This is one of the reasons my time at KCLS convinced me that practical day-to-day community legal work is a highly varied, sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding space to work in.
Holistic approach to legal practice:
KCLS promotes a model that seeks to help clients with their legal problems in a holistic way through the involvement of financial planning and client advocates in their contact with the legal centre. It makes sense. Often a matter relating to tenancy may be related to a range of other concerns in a clients’ life, such as Centrelink issues, that other workers in the office can assist with. I found this a really important lesson – that you cannot think of a legal problem in a distinct separate manner, particularly when clients are disadvantaged and rely heavily on legal services for support and assistance.
Throughout my time at KCLS, I was able to shadow lawyers as they met with new clients at the weekly drop in sessions. I was able to attend other appointments with clients who were comfortable with me being present, and became quite familiar with some clients. I grew in confidence as I navigated the right way to approach and speak to clients, as well as other stakeholders. I assisted a lawyer with trial preparation, drafted letters of advice and complaint letters, made many phone enquiries, contacted clients, drafted closing letters, sent out FOI request letters, completed research memos, attended legal practice meetings, and liaised with paralegals working remotely from Canberra. I was always busy, and appreciated the trust lawyers had in me to balance work on many different files at once.
Law reform and community engagement:
The practical work I did on a day to day basis was complemented by the opportunities I was given to assist with the final stages of KCLS’ Submission to the Coronial Inquest into Youth Suicide in the Kimberley. This submission addressed the systemic issues that contribute to suicide in the region and provided recommendations to improve policies, culture and service provider responses. From this, I really began to much more intricately understand the manner in which policy deficiencies, historical trauma, access to housing and education, and cultural sensitivity contribute to the difficulties clients face.
I appreciate that an understanding of the social and political context in the Kimberley is required to grasp your role as a lawyer. Having spent close to 2 months in Kununurra, I became a familiar face for some clients, went on outreach to other communities, attended community events, took Mirriwoong language classes, learnt from Aboriginal staff members, and work with lawyers who are passionate and knowledgeable about the realities and opportunities in the region.
I often felt a sense of frustration at the deeply unfair way Aboriginal Australians have been treated, and a profound respect for the dignity they still possess. As a result of these experiences I feel driven and much better equipped to sensitively approach any work I do or discussions I have in this space. I now much more critically question the disempowering narratives often spoken of in the media of communities, and instead seek to emphasise the importance of listening and learning from people living in the region.
The work up in Kimberley is accompanied by overwhelmingly beautiful landscapes, unpredictable weather and an adventurous lifestyle. Being in the Kimberley in the wet season means the waterholes have filled up, the vegetation turns extremely green and electrical storms feature regularly. The geographical remoteness of Kununurra, particularly in the wet season, brings people together. Thanks to all of the welcoming people at KCLS, my fellow Aurora Interns and many other people in the community, there was always an opportunity for a sunset picnic at a cliff-side waterfall, a weekend hike to a hidden gorge, or regular Tuesday night trivia at the pub.
It would be easy to forget, though, that there are some deeply troubling attitudes in the community, and a cultural divide and distrust between people that makes the need for greater cultural understanding and integration so apparent in Australian society.
I feel humbled by all of these experiences – the land, the people, the work - and most definitely unsettled by challenges of the journey communities have gone through and continue to navigate. I would encourage anyone to spend time in Northern Australia – to understand, to listen and to take a step back and think clearly about what your best contribution could be to legal and policy issues in this space.