In the June/July Holidays, I undertook a placement at Queensland South Native Title Services (QSNTS) via the Aurora Internship Program - an organisation devoted to letting students and graduates experience (and work in) organisations with an Indigenous focus.
Growing up in rural areas all my life, some of my closest childhood friends identify as Indigenous and I had observed - although was not aware of the great gravity of - the types of systematic disadvantages they face, whether in education, health, or justice. It was through this experience that I applied for an Aurora internship in first place: I wanted to learn about the mechanisms put in place in my professional discipline, law, to achieve justice for this demographic.
My purpose for studying law has always been visionary; I would explore the intersection between law and social work to serve a humanitarian cause, often in the context of disadvantaged groups and minorities. This is the rather common narrative of the aspiring human rights lawyer: our core purposes coincide with one another, along with a standardised understanding of what upholding human rights actually means. We see key global organisations of justice - such as the UN, UNICEF, Amnesty International amongst many others - and develop the intuition that human rights work is, at heart, one of international law, governance and policy, criminal justice.
And yet, the work of QSNTS is undoubtedly human rights work but served as a challenge to my preconceived notions. My first exposure to native title law was in the context of the real property law unit, and even then, it was only a glimpse - and like most legal theory, mechanical and detached from human beings and their experiences - we learn about the cases only as a means of distinguishing radical title from absolute beneficial ownership, touching very fleetingly on the ramifications of imposing terra nullius and the need to reverse a misconception, but without ever delving into the extreme impact the process had on Indigenous peoples.
Native title in practice, however, is only ever about the people and how to empower them.
QSNTS works with Indigenous communities, for the communities, in order to empower them to reclaim the land that is rightfully theirs. Proving native title claims means that claimants often had to discuss their stories to demonstrate personal connection to the land; stories of what different landmarks and artefacts meant to them, where their family grew up and how their weekends were spent, the stories that pertain to significant areas of their land, passed by generations and generations on end. Reading the personal recounts made me feel connected to the narrator and often confronted; sometimes, even the darkest events that signify a place - such as a murder or abduction - are only reflected in one line within a legal document, written only in a factual tone to progress the case. The exploration of the realities of trauma experienced fell into another discipline - perhaps social work - but not the legal.
I was given various tasks during my placement, all equally immersive, let it be complex and fascinating legal research or ad hoc administrative tasks. One of the tasks I loved doing was researching native title rights surrounding water - for example, can I claim rights to water if it’s outside my native title claim area? I was amazed that something this practical was not touched upon in great detail in the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘NTA’) but that claimants had to rely upon government policy to make claims. Part of the research projected involved writing recommendations for reform in the native title act - especially to make some areas a bit more expanded and practical to the various circumstances faced by claimants. Looking at the past reforms already made to the NTA made me optimistic that the legislatures are always looking for opportunities to improve the legislation - especially its caveats under practical considerations - and it exposes the reality of making the law targeting a vulnerable group: there must always be continual change in place regarding the law and policies as a mechanism where the law is silent.
It was especially the warm culture at QSNTS that I held closest to my heart - I was amazed by how many of my fellow colleagues remembered my name, or checked in with me regarding legal tasks, or were flexible to my needs and unexpected issues that arose. The office was always rosy with good humour and colleagues who doubled up as good friends - a far cry from the stoic, avoidant television personalities of the typical legal professional.
For any QUT Law students who want to do humanitarian work, gain invaluable experience in cross-culturalism and learning about Indigenous rights and injustices, or simply wanting to enhance their practical legal skills, I highly recommend Aurora’s and QSNTS to you. I am looking to do another placement with them in the near-future since I enjoyed this one so much.
Applications are currently open through 31 August for the Aurora Internship Program’s internships for summer 2018/19. You can find out more here: http://auroraproject.com.au/about-applying-internship