Laura Stephenson

Organisation: 
Stream: 
Legal
Sector: 
Native Title
Location: 
Cairns
Round: 
Winter 2019

My internship at NQLC

North Queensland Land Council (NQLC) facilitates the claims for native title, and the process involves conducting anthropological research and consulting with Traditional land Owners to obtain evidence to their connection to the land in question. The five weeks I spent as an Aurora intern at NQLC were rewarding, challenging and insightful. Having little knowledge of native title law before commencing my placement, this internship allowed me to develop a further understanding of native title law, both in theory and in practice. I was able to develop my professional skills with a focus on tasks related to different native title claims.

The tasks I was given predominantly focused on obtaining and documenting the evidence for a native title claim. I drafted affidavits, drafted letters, transcribed interviews from audio files, filed documents in the Federal Court of Australia, used Google Earth to map certain indigenous areas, and listened in on interviews between NQLC staff and the Indigenous applicants involved in the claims, which often involved travelling outside of the office to meet the applicants. Alongside of this, I also read many reports, books and articles, and engaged in discussions with staff to familiarise myself with native title law.

At NQLC I observed the work of the anthropology unit and the important link this has with the legal work of a native title legal practice. A lot of the evidence required to be submitted in a native title Claim relies on the work of anthropologists, so they must work together with the lawyers to obtain and interpret evidence within the scope of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth).

Despite having conducted extensive anthropological research, the limitations of native title law are particularly clear when evidence is being led during a hearing. In turn, this can make putting forward a native title claim quite challenging. Connection to Country has to be proven from the date of Sovereignty - that is 26 January 1788. For a culture whose entire history, spirituality, laws and customs are transmitted orally, this is quite onerous. The standards regarding the credibility and reliability of primary evidence add to the complexity of the process. So, as a result, my role at NQLC involved drafting affidavits for Indigenous applicants about their cultural, legal and spiritual connections to the claim area under question, and I needed to specifically relate these to areas the State had identified as areas of importance, to present a higher depth and concreteness of evidence.

 

Importantly, I observed firsthand how the interview process works, and the cultural differences that must be respected when asking for culturally sensitive information. One of the significant aspects I learnt was the importance of relationships. Rather than the interviewer being direct and upfront, and hoping to elicit an answer, the interviewer needs to develop a relationship with the witness over time so that an answer is provided. Building the relationship requires a lot of patience, understanding, and time. It is nevertheless very important, as primary evidence is given significant weight in a native title claim.

 

Establishing a native title claim is rarely a straightforward process. Native title hearings have highlighted some of the issues with statutory interpretation in the Native Title Act 1993, the Evidence Act 1995 (Cth), and the reliability of primary evidence. These systemic features impose high standards of proof, which in my view, require a disproportionate amount of evidence to be submitted for the intended outcome. Overall, I found the legal processes behind native title law are skewed towards the benefit of non-native title interests, which often does not adequately reflect the interests of Indigenous people, or acknowledge the fundamental elements of Indigenous culture and identity that are inherently linked to land. The legislation is constantly under scrutiny, often resulting in issues of statutory interpretation, and consequently adds to the challenges faced by lawyers.

 

I would recommend the Aurora Internship Program to any student or graduate looking to gain practical experience, a greater understanding of Indigenous affairs more broadly, and an experience of the social and legal structures in place to support Indigenous people. The internship allowed me to consolidate the areas of law I have already studied, whilst exposing me to new areas of law. Whilst at times things felt fast paced, I was regularly reminded by my supervisor to be patient, and that we are all, always learning. I came away from the experience with a greater understanding of both native title law and its challenges, and knowledge of Indigenous law and culture. This has been a valuable and insightful experience, and a great way for me to contribute to, and support the Indigenous sector, whilst also developing my professional skills in an interesting field of work. The staff at NQLC are friendly, welcoming, and supportive and this greatly added to my experience.

I found that native title law encompasses a broad range of many areas of law, so this allowed me to see these connections and apply the skills and knowledge gained in my studies into the context of native title. This internship has allowed me to start considering the types of work I would like to pursue after I graduate. It has also given me confidence to look for further opportunities in the Indigenous sector.

Overall, Cairns was an enjoyable, fun and interesting place to visit. I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful, natural regions of the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, Fitzroy Island, and the Atherton Tablelands during my short stay. However, being in a town with a prevalent Indigenous population meant I was confronted with attitudes towards native title that were ignorant and insensitive towards the Indigenous culture. Through my work of observing the importance of land to Indigenous applicants, the work done at NQLC through native title claims is increasingly important to ensure land with cultural significance to Indigenous people is protected. It was inspiring to see the dedication at NQLC to support Indigenous applicants in gaining continual recognition towards their rights to native title.

For more information regarding the opportunities that Aurora offers, visit http://auroraproject.com.au/about-internship-program. Applications for the winter 2020 round will be open in March 2020.