From November to December 2018, I was given the opportunity to take part in an Aurora Internship at the Aboriginal Legal Service in Wollongong for approximately 5 weeks. The Internship has been the most rewarding experience offered to me during my time at university.
ALS Wollongong is located in central Wollongong and its lawyers offer criminal legal aid for Indigenous Australians at Port Kembla, Campbelltown and Wollongong, as well as their respective Children’s Courts. Like many government-funded legal aid bodies, the ALS is over-worked and under-staffed. My time here made me realise how hard working legal aid lawyers are and the volume of work to be done in assisting Indigenous Australians. While overwhelming, the benefit of this reality was that Interns are given a great deal of responsibility in assisting the lawyers.
During my Internship I spent time working both in the office and at Court. I assisted lawyers by assessing evidence and preparing briefs, filing subpoenas, lodging appeals, filling out court documents, conducting legal research, requesting reports from experts, observing case conferences, writing representations to police and the prosecution. The most exciting part of my time at ALS was observing lawyers in Court. It was rewarding to see the practical manifestation of theory I had learnt at University. Being able to attend a variety of courts was refreshing and it was interesting to note differences depending on the court’s location and children’s court compared to adult’s court. Highlights of my time at court were observing an ALS lawyer cross examine a witness, as well as assisting in taking instructions from clients both in court and in custody. I found the most rewarding part of my Internship overall to be the personal interactions with clients and the ability to make a difference in their life by helping them solve legal problems.
Whilst having been a weekly volunteer at a legal aid organisation in the past, daily work experience at ALS was a far greater learning experience. The intensity of the program allowed me to make more meaningful contributions to cases, as often I would work on a matter for a number of weeks and witness its progression from taking instructions from a client to its resolution at court.
Given Wollongong is a university town, there were other volunteer students working at ALS while I was there. This was greatly beneficial in that I was able to ask these volunteers for help and we could more effectively work together. The lawyers at ALS were also very welcoming and always willing to help volunteers, even when they were busy with more important work.
My time at ALS offered me the chance to expand on my practical legal skills that are not taught at university. In particular, these skills include helping interview clients, filing court documents and communicating with police and prosecution. Familiarity with these practical skills will ultimately assist me by giving me a head start once I begin working as a lawyer.
As a non-Indigenous Australian, I found the Aurora Internship particularly insightful and educational. To this day there are still inherent biases in the criminal legal system that directly impact Indigenous Australians. I would strongly encourage other non-indigenous law students to take part in the program, to work towards a greater understanding of Indigenous issues in Australia and reconciliation.
Further, I would recommend that students apply for a regional area away from where they live. Indigenous issues become more magnified within smaller communities. However, the capacity of a volunteer to make a difference to a community is similarly magnified. While intimidating at first, nominating somewhere unfamiliar allows you to be taken out of your comfort zone and is ultimately more rewarding.
The Internship also provided a range of wonderful experiences outside of working hours. There is no shortage of weekend activities in Wollongong. There are some great spots to surf, swim, eat, drink and explore a short drive up or down the coast. Some highlights of my weekend experiences include camping at serene Cape Jervis, surfing at Stanwell Park, climbing the Sublime Point walking track and relaxing at the various beaches which span the Illawarra coastline. It was also great to visit friends in Sydney on the weekends, which was easily accessible by an hour and a half scenic train ride. Wollongong itself also offers plenty, with surfing beaches, a range of restaurants and a vibrant university nightlife.
I found my expectations for ALS Wollongong were exceeded. I learnt and experienced much more than I thought I would. I strongly suggest that any law student with an interest in social justice apply for the program.