For four weeks in June 2019 I was given the opportunity to take part in the Aurora Internship Program at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) located in Wollongong. This opportunity opened my eyes to the complexities of the Australian legal system and gave me great hands on experience in the criminal law field.
ALS offers legal aid for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients in Port Kembla, Campbelltown and Wollongong areas, this workload covers the Local Court, District Court and Children’s Court jurisdictions. The month that I spent at ALS made it very clear that a service that provides such crucial representation of Australia’s most disadvantage is also severely under-funded and over worked. The ALS staff work tirelessly, often out of hours to ensure their clients have the best representation. The intense workload also meant that as an intern I was able to help in a variety of ways and was given much more responsibility than I anticipated.
The team at ALS made me feel confident to ask them any questions. I was able to engage in a variety of tasks at the office and in court. I was able to Shadow solicitors a court which gave me a much deeper understanding of how to prepare court documents and organise them appropriately. I was also able to attend conferences with clients at the ALS office or in the cells prior to court proceedings. This taught me the importance of communication with clients of low socioeconomic status and across cultural differences. It also established the importance to explain the law clearly and give top and bottom sentencing guides to clients facing jail time. These experiences have shown the difficulties Indigenous people face in their own lives and how the law has a limited understanding of the inequalities they continue to suffer from. Attending the variety of courts also opened my eyes to the difference in process between adult and children’s courts. I was able to observe how young people find the court system so intimidating but see how the courts have tried to mitigate this through the casual layout and informal court proceedings.
I was also able to perform research duties, specifically in regards to causation and key cases that the ALS lawyers would later rely on. These tasks were also very useful for myself, to understand different aspects of criminal law and extend from what I had learnt in University. I also performed basic duties like filling, tabbing, listening to recordings and ordering briefs. These are tasks that are small but helped with the efficiency of the office.
I was able to gain practical legal skills that University does not teach including interviewing skills, how to deal under high pressure situations, the importance of being prepared with submissions and adapting to what Judges are assigned to each day. It made clear that the legal system is not concrete and different values and perspectives can heavily impact decisions made. Communicating with police and prosecution was also a huge eye opener, realising the importance of cooperation to reduce delay and increase efficiency.
In regards to the location of Wollongong, as the University is nearby many of the other interns are Wollongong University law students. I found these other interns very helpful to work with and gave me great advice with computer systems and court procedure. We were all able to work together and divide tasks and they always had time to answer my questions as well. ALS has a very open, friendly and supportive environment to be a part of even for such a short time.
It is also a benefit that there are many amazing places to eat and see around Wollongong and the Kiama region as well. Public transport is easy to get to the ALS office and there is much parking nearby too. Although Wollongong is not far out of Sydney the difference in Indigenous population, social issues and criminal offending is very apparent. Working out of Sydney I was able to see how difficult it is for rural communities suffering from a lack of access to justice, resources and delay. It was confronting to also question how greater these issues would be the more rural one would travel.
As a non-Indigenous Australian, that strongly values Indigenous perspective and rights in our society, I found this experience incredibly insightful how have systemic racism is in our society and how easily marginalised Indigenous people continue to be today. This is evident in how the police, courts and media treat Indigenous communities. This enforced my passion to continue to study in this area and to pursue a career in the Indigenous legal sector to help contribute to change.
My experience at ALS Wollongong has embedded me with the future direction of my career towards criminal law and social justice work. These experiences are ones that I would not be able to gather in the University setting, they were real, hands on and confronting. The support of ALS staff to encourage questions, think outside the box and give clear legal reasoning has promoted within myself to be much more conscious in my own legal theory. I was able to be exposed to situations and clients which has given me a new perspective of current legal system and driven me to contribute to change.