Experiencing the life and times of a barrister
With the sun shining behind our ten seater Cessna aircraft, we peered out the cabin windows across the rich, earthy hues of the Maralinga lands at manmade, geometrically-raked patches of turned dirt. These were the scars of the British atomic bomb programme from the 1950s and 60s. Fast approaching in the distance was the black, weather-beaten, yet still operational airstrip equipped to land heavy nuclear loads and fit to land a space shuttle. This was Maralinga Village, population two, but with roads and derelict houses, most reduced to concrete slabs, that once provided for hundreds of British and Australian servicemen. It was on the penultimate day of my internship with barrister Andrew Collett, that I was taken ‘on country’. And as the wind whistled eerily through the scattered shrubbery, you could not help but to superimpose the nuclear activities that once seized the space and the twenty-five year political and legal struggle that had since ensued. The final piece of Commonwealth-owned land surrounding and including Maralinga Village was to be ceremoniously handed back to the Maralinga Tjarutja.
I was the Johnny-come-lately, the new kid on the block, a freshman. Not only had I come direct from my morning Corporate exam with a frazzled state of mind, but I had only a basic knowledge of a weapons programme that had involved utmost secrecy, unquestionable rock-solid British-Australian cooperation and a large disregard for the health and safety of ALL Australians. And so I attended the media relations training session for the Maralinga delegation. Having arrived to help usher through Parliament the Maralinga lands hand-back Bill, I watched on as the delegation honed their message for the next day’s political lobbying and dalliances with the media, all of which I eagerly attended. As a fourth-year law-commerce student with a diploma of languages (Italian) and little practical experience, I had struck it lucky – I had commenced my placement at this time of great historic (and undoubtedly political) moment. In fact, whilst sitting in the South Australian House of Assembly, I was thrust into the political foray as my local MP, Vickie Chapman, professed her hope that, as the youngest member of the chamber, I would appreciate the significance of the occasion forever more.
Such dramatic beginnings, far from fizzing out, continued throughout my placement. My role was, in essence, to shadow Andrew in his daily work. This meant an exceptional breadth of experiences during my Aurora experience. Whilst there were no native title determinations in process during my internship, research on the application of the state-based statute of limitations to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and attendance at fiery negotiations over the relationship between Aboriginal non-native title holders and pastoral lessees all brought to the fore native title points of law.
As any barrister will attest, the role of a professional advocate is not limited to any one area of the law. A significant proportion of Andrew’s work did, however, revolve around representing Aboriginal people and Aboriginal statutory organisations in areas involving personal injuries, criminal and even company law. Further, there was work to be undertaken on non-indigenous matters, all of which proved a valuable insight into the life of a barrister. Time spent in the office would involve reading newly-received briefs and providing chronologies of the facts and evidence, researching points of law, drafting opinions and assisting in the organisation of the ceremony and trip to Maralinga.
Perhaps the most valuable and interesting times were spent outside the office. This included involvement with State and Commonwealth bureaucrats in the organisation of the hand-back ceremony, attending negotiations over the use of land where Aboriginal interests were at stake, rushing to the Supreme Court with Andrew for an urgent interlocutory injunction to stop the holding of a General Meeting, observing as the Federal Magistrate handed down, in a matter of minutes, a judgment granting reconsideration of a visa application and taking notes at numerous meetings with different instructing solicitors concerning a range of briefs. More than anything, I relished the outings that disbanded my perception that success in the law comes at the expense of a life. Highlights included attending the Second Test at Adelaide Oval, working from the second ‘office’ at Andrew’s McLaren Vale vineyard and, of course, consumption of numerous delights at Christmas drinks and dinners. This should not take away from the many hours of tireless work involved in advocacy due inevitably to adherence to John Cooke’s cab rank rule. The lesson I learnt was that it is always possible to set time aside to make work and play co-existent.
Shadowing a barrister involves a steep learning curve, not least when one throws into the mix work requiring cultural understanding. Working with Aboriginal communities can prove frustrating, with different perceptions of social conventions such as time and etiquette. Thus, not even a barrister is immune from rolling-up his or her sleeves to help out where needed, such as ensuring clients appear on time. Scrubbing away this veneer of misunderstanding reveals further friction within Aboriginal communities and endemic mistrust between families especially when it comes to control of resources. That said, the relationships established between Andrew and his clients (and even between his clients and myself) matured into relationships of mutual respect and admiration that provide lasting satisfaction and drive to continue to help.
My most treasured times were spent walking with Andrew to meetings where I would ask-away about legal principles, the efficiency and equality in the justice system and the seemingly never-ending fight to ‘close the gap’ on Aboriginal disadvantage. I would urge any intern to seek out these opportunities and engage in healthy questioning of your boss and colleagues. I was fortunate that for me Andrew became not just a boss but a mentor and role model.
With all this in mind, we boarded the Cessna once again. We taxied down the runway and I noted in my diary that the land was now Maralinga Tjarutja land and we had been their guests. Two hours later and a world away, we alighted in Adelaide in time for a final hurrah; the Murray Chambers Christmas Drinks. I had experienced the perfect balance: work, help and play.
For more information about the Aurora Native Title Internship Program visit www.auroraproject.com.au