Aboriginal land rights and native title law are not considered mainstream areas of law and are therefore often overlooked as potential areas of practice by law students. However, having just completed a 5-week Aurora internship at the Northern Land Council (“NLC”), I can attest that such areas are fascinating and exciting on account of both the factual and legal disputes which are rarely settled on the court steps and the breadth of law that practitioners touch upon.
Life as a lawyer in land rights and native title is not the life of a desk jockey. The work will enable you to visit remote and beautiful areas of Australia few Australians experience. It will also afford you the opportunity to work closely with Aboriginals and/or Torres Strait Islanders; many of whom have lived remotely all of their lives and speak little or no English. Working with Indigenous people can be challenging on a personal and professional level - it thus requires a thick skin and compassion.
If you have any inclination to pursue a career working with Aboriginals and/or Torres Strait Islanders and you study law, anthropology or social science, I highly recommend that you apply for an internship through the Aurora Project. The Aurora Project gives students a unique opportunity to intern with an Indigenous organisation or an organisation that works with Indigenous communities.
During my Aurora internship I gained an invaluable insight into land rights and native title law, the unique Northern Territory culture and lifestyle and met a diverse and amazing range of people. My experience fundamentally altered my expectations of legal practice and indigenous issues and will undoubtedly inform the decisions I’m soon to confront as I near the end of undergraduate life.
In this article I will provide a brief overview of the role and history of the NLC, my experience as an intern, working life at the NLC and the personal and professional development I gained from my experience as an intern.
The Northern Land Council
The NLC is an independent statutory authority responsible for assisting Aboriginal people in the northern region of the Northern Territory to acquire and manage their traditional lands and seas. Approximately 30,000 Aboriginal people live within the NLC region. While many live in major towns, there are almost 200 remote communities ranging in size from small family outstations to settlements of up to 3000 people.
The NLC is also a Native Title Representative Body under the Native Title Act 2003 (Cth). In that capacity, the NLC also represents the Aboriginal people of the Tiwi Islands and Groote Eylandt.
The NLC provides a diverse range of legal, land management, commercial and advocacy services to Aboriginal people who live on, or own land, within its region. Therefore, the NLC stays true to its logo, the Rainbow Serpent – the benevolent protector of the people and malevolent punisher of those who break law.
My first experience of being involved in a consultation between the NLC and Traditional Owners took place on Croker Island. Croker Island has a short but notable history of European land administration. Originally established as an Aboriginal Mission, Croker Island became Aboriginal Land in 1978 under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (1977) (Cth). However, today it is subject to the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act (Cth) 2007; the Act introduced by the Howard Government Intervention. The seas surrounding Croker Island were subject to the landmark native title decision Yarmirr v Northern Territory  HCA 56 which recognised the existence of non-exclusive native title rights to the inter-tidal zone both of the mainland and of the islands within the claimed area.
On the third day of my internship two NLC officers, a family from Croker Island and I boarded a 9-seater charter flight from Darwin to Croker Island. The flight was an experience in itself - flying low I was able to see the spectacular and expansive Coburg peninsular up close. However, as the plane hit a cross wind on the approach to the red dirt airstrip the beautiful vista could not distract me from the turbulence.
On arrival we were transported to Minjilang; the main community on Croker Island. Over a cup of tea NLC staff explained that we were meeting with traditional Aboriginal owners of Croker to seek their approval for a land use agreement over a particular area of their island.
My some what academic and limited understanding of the legal history of Croker Island did not entirely prepare me for the consultation that was about to take place. I soon came to understand that life on Croker Island is dictated by its people, politics and their deep spiritual connection to the island. The intricacies of the politicking that take place in any community cannot fully be understood without a first hand knowledge. Such intricacies add another dimension to working in this area of law.
The role of the NLC legal branch is to negotiate land use agreements with assistance from the NLC Anthropological, Land Management and Mining branches together with the NLC regional offices. Therefore, consultations are a team effort. The consultation itself was quite explosive with many diverse views and interests expressed by the persons attending. The task for the NLC team was therefore to ensure each of the views were heard, noted and debated in order for a decision to be taken. It was an incredible interchange to watch and indeed a lapse of concentration at any moment left you streets behind the events that were unfolding.
The Croker Island meeting was just one of the consultations that I was fortunate enough to be involved in. Attending consultations afforded me an insight into the legal, political and cultural factors which shape a community’s decision to enter into a land use agreement and the details of that agreement.
In the third week of my internship I attended a Federal Court Case Management Conference for a native title consent determination. Following the conference, I was given the task of drafting 23 native title claimant applications. This involved pouring over anthropological reports and genealogies to identify and describe the members of the native title party for each application. Once drafted, I was given a rare opportunity to spend four days on the road with an anthropologist traversing half of the Top End to meet with the relevant native title claimants to explain the claims and obtain their consent and signatures. This was an amazing experience. The first half of the task introduced me to practicalities of drafting legal documents and understanding the process and role of the court. The second half of going out on the road was really about personal development. In traversing thousands of kilometres of the Northern Territory you see parts of the country that not many other people get to see and meet with senior Aboriginal men and women.
From my time as an intern I sense that working at the NLC and, in particular, the legal branch is both incredibly personally rewarding and challenging. Day to day the NLC lawyers work long hours due to their heavy workloads, frequent travel and court deadlines. Therefore, as you can imagine, they’re a motivated, highly skilled and dedicated bunch.
I observed how NLC lawyers communicate with all manner of people from Commonwealth Ministers to clients who speak little to no English to larrikin crocodile hunters. And, also, how they’re often required to seamlessly move between matters when a client turns up unannounced, the phone rings or an email hits their in-tray.
The legal staff made me feel welcome and encouraged my input despite juggling their incredibly heavy workloads. Each member had their own attributes and personality that contributed to the outcomes of the legal branch. In my time at the NLC I felt valued and was treated with respect and compassion when it occasionally took me an unjustifiable amount of time to properly understand a task. I admired the NLC lawyers’ ability to cope with work demands and was continually fascinated by the transformation from law student to lawyer.
The different branches of the NLC rarely work alone. The Anthropology branch is integral to almost every project at the NLC as it is their role to identify the traditional Aboriginal owners. Prior to my internship at the NLC I knew that anthropological evidence was important in native title determinations but did not appreciate the breadth or centrality of the role of an anthropologist to land council business. Anthropologists are regularly called upon to ascertain and express the wishes of Aboriginal people about the management of their land, to be a cultural guide for outsiders and to form views about the traditional ownership of an area.
Accordingly, anthropological work requires dedication, patience and excellent communication, facilitation and negotiation skills.
Personal and Professional Development
My internship at the NLC was the first time I’ve encountered a legal practice where everyone was like minded, dedicated, positive and genuinely loved their careers in the law. Together with my previous exposure to legal practice, it assisted me in realising that life in the law can be an extremely diverse and satisfying one. Therefore, it strengthened my resolve to pursue a career in native title law and return to my university studies with gusto.
In the first weeks of my internship I found it is easy to become overwhelmed by the nuances of the cultural, legal and political environment I had joined and coped by burying my head in the discrete tasks I was assigned. However, towards the end of my internship I became more comfortable with my surrounds and found myself reflecting more on the cultural, political and socioeconomic issues which inform the NLC’s role and the people that live in the NLC region. This, together with experiencing living in Darwin undoubtedly helped me grow both personally and professionally.