Justin Pen

Aboriginal Legal Services
Summer 2016

When I first arrived at the Armidale Local Court I regularly found myself in the middle. Taking up space in the middle of small, squashed rooms; arriving in the middle of cases that had been in the works for weeks; and finding myself thrust into the middle of some of the most stressful and tragic moments in people’s lives.

Over the summer I completed a full-time, six-week placement with the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) Armidale through the Aurora Internship Program.

Nowadays the data is so well-known that it barely bears repeating: Aboriginal people make up 3% of the general population and 28% of the prison population. In the country I saw the lived reality behind these figures play out daily.

As a sketch, the most recurring defendant was a young man about 20 to 25 years old. He had problems with substance abuse, most likely alcohol or cannabis and, in more severe cases, ice. He had difficulties maintaining employment, stemming from some combination of an unstable upbringing, an incomplete schooling experience or plain and pitiless racism.

The sum of these experiences bred the conditions of criminality, but more often than not, when reading through a person’s police history there was a fuse initially lit by personal tragedy. This was usually uncovered after fifteen to 30 minutes of sensitive but inquiring client interviewing. For juveniles, offenders under the age of 18, this was usually the death of an anchor family member – a mother, grandmother, father or grandfather who cared and looked after them.

During my time with the ALS, I was required to draw from areas of criminal, evidence, sentencing and bail law. Beyond this, I was regularly exposed to the points at which law intersect with social and health issues, with entire matters practically defined by a client’s intellectual disability or serious mental health issues.

The tasks I was given ranged from analysing and reviewing police briefs of evidence and criminal histories to lighter administrative office work. I was given discrete research tasks, based on the casework before us, and ongoing projects designed to build the resource library of the ALS. I attended Local Court on my first day – and spent about half of my internship in the courtroom or in Circuit Courts.  I was given the opportunity to do mentions before the Magistrate and enter pleas or seek adjournments on behalf of clients.

The work was not just intellectually stimulating – at times it was emotionally and physically draining. The regularity with which I bore witness to generational and ongoing trauma, severe accounts of serious violence, and 10-14 year olds brought before the courts was exhausting. However, the solicitors at ALS were always very supportive at these moments. I also regularly reminded myself that that while I was observing tragedy, our clients were the ones living it.

Country environments also offer a rich source of community – even for those, such as myself, who have lived their whole lives in suburbs or cities. The warmth of regional and rural communities is really something to behold. A barista knew my name, order and what I was doing in town on my second visit to her shop. She smiled and greeted me whenever I walked past her store on the town’s main street.

If you have an interest in criminal law, regional or rural lawyering, or social justice, I’d highly recommend applying for an Aurora winter or summer internship in 2016. My work with the ALS was certainly an intense, but ultimately rewarding, experience.