Lorraine Bowan

Justice Agencies
Summer 2018

Getting your foot in the law firm door via a legal internship is part of the standard segue from student to lawyer. There you can learn the ropes from the ground up. An internship as a judges' assistant or associate seems a heady leap from classroom to chambers. There you glimpse a different perspective, from the top down. The Aurora internship in the Local Court in Darwin is a rare opportunity to observe the big picture of the justice system, and to see the interaction between the three arms of government as executive policy and legislative acts directly impact on the lives of citizens through judicial decisions.

The Northern Territory has a two tier court system.  The title, 'magistrate', was formally replaced by 'judge' in the Local Court under the Local Court Act in 2015, reflecting the separation of the former public service magistracy from the executive branch of government, and its now complete integration within the judiciary. The Northern Territory has led the way in Australia with this reform which strengthens the independence of judicial officers and enhances public confidence in the court.

Aboriginal people make up 30% of the NT population but 80% of the prison population and 98% of the those in youth detention (NAAJA 2013). This is the central issue for a socially just Australian society. It is raised time and again in the policy focus of a law degree and an Aurora Internship at the Local Court lays bare the nature of the challenges and the fidelity to principle of the Court's response to those challenges.

Over the period of your internship you are likely to be pre-occupied with this problem and come to the inescapable conclusion that neither the plethora of rehabilitation schemes and support programs, nor the 'get tough on crime' election promise and subsequent policy stance of successive administrations have had a significant impact on these statistics.

The former (rehabilitation programs) do provide valuable support to clients on remand or with bail conditions regarding drug and alcohol abuse but recidivism rates remain very high as you hear in court the long list of programs accused people have already completed, and yet still reoffend. The latter (tough on crime stance) is apparent in measures like the Northern Territory Banned Drinker Register which was reinstated in September 2017 to tackle alcohol and drug related violence, but research indicates the incidence of this violence has increased since its re-activation despite almost 2,500 people being placed on the list. Direct court observation of offenders, hearing their circumstances, and seeing the impact of policies such as mandatory sentencing and the imposition of victim assistance levies generates an informed perspective that will have a lasting impact on future legal practitioners.

Court observation can be raw and confronting in sensitive cases. It provokes searching questions in the mind which, as an intern, you may discuss with the judges in chambers and hear their informed perspectives. Apart from the busy summary offences list, interns can observe the domestic violence list, mental health diversions, civil list with employer/employee relations, workers compensation and torts claims, mediations of civil disputes with the judicial registrar, family and custody matters and coronial inquests. The youth court is in a separate location and interns attend a day of hearings. The Supreme Court is a short walk away and interns may observe a jury trial or appeal. A day at the non-judicial Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal is another of the varied observation experiences facilitated by an internship at the Local Court.

The research component of the internship is most rewarding as you conduct searches of case law or legislation on requests from any of the judges related to their cases. The Local Court is under-resourced and this is where working as a volunteer, you are in a position to shoulder the research load and feed into the collective endeavour of the court. It is a buoyant, positive workplace with a atmosphere of calm and convivial collaboration to support the work of the judges. A major research project allocated by the Chief Judge, Dr Lowndes, affords an opportunity to contribute to the broader public relations and public role of the court within the Territory. Perspectives I gained from this research framed my daily court observations, giving context to all that I witnessed.

Darwin is a well-kept secret as a destination within Australia. While admiration is deservedly universal for Kakadu, the little you hear about the pleasures of Darwin city seems strange when it has so much to offer. The wet season has its dramas, the dry season appeals to all, and the build-up before the wet has a special edginess as everyone checks the weather radar and rehearses their cyclone survival plans.

The city's more manageable size and lack of traffic are a delight to those coming from Sydney or Melbourne, and the bus service got me to and from work without fail every day and around town on weekends without my having to hire a car. I did have access to a bicycle and delighted in the scenic bike paths along the coast. Getting together with other interns and hiring a vehicle for weekend trips is a great way to share internship experiences and explore together.

Darwin's attractions such as the botanical gardens, festivals, markets, sports venues like the scenic Gardens Tennis Club, Wave pool, Museum and Art Gallery, Entertainment Centre and Port offer more possibilities than you have free time to enjoy making it an all-round positive experience.

The proximity to Litchfield National Park, Kakadu, and Nitmiluk at Katherine, means you can add time to the beginning or end of the internship and explore some of the most breathtaking places in Australia. The icing on the cake for me was the uniqueness of the Territory vibe: the obsession with crocs, the proximity to the mysterious Arnhem Land, the outback feel of the vastness of the country when you drive past road signs with impossibly huge mileages, the hardy, tattooed yarn-tellers in the iconic pubs and the dusty RM Williams riding boots and Akubras. It is not surprising that some of the judges and many of the lawyers tell you they came to the Territory with the plan of giving it a year or so and stayed permanently - it's that kind of place.