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NLAF Working Group on Aboriginal Clients Northern Rivers Civil Law Resources Project

Report - May 2009


In 2007 the New South Wales Legal Assistance Forum (NLAF) became aware of emerging unmet civil law needs in Aboriginal communities in NSW. With this in mind, the NLAF requested that Working Group on Aboriginal Clients (the Working Group) undertake a project that would help identify what those needs were and how legal service providers could best respond to them. From the outset it was decided that, to make sure any response or resource best suited and actually met the needs of the community , that it should be they who decide exactly what they need to know about and what format the response should take. The role of the Working Group would be to engage with those communities to raise awareness about what civil law includes (e.g., housing, debt, fines), to find out about that community’s civil law needs, and to facilitate the production of a resource that would address the issues of most concern to the community. The Northern Rivers area of NSW was chosen as it satisfied a number of criteria that the Working Group had formulated to help ensure that a sustainable response was provided to any issues raised by community members, in particular:

An active Aboriginal Community Justice Group and Aboriginal Client Service Specialist at the Local Court;

Civil law solicitors and services on the ground, in particular Community Legal Centre, Legal Aid NSW and Aboriginal Legal Service

A long running Cooperative Legal Service Delivery program

The consultation process

A consultation model was developed where by:

  • Case studies of every day situations involving civil law issues were used to instigate discussions with community members around civil law issues
  • legal advice was offered to participants immediately following the morning workshop
  • Existing Aboriginal community representative groups were used as a means of engaging with communities.

The findings in this document are collated from a number of consultations conducted in the Northern Rivers area. Included are:

  • Five Consultations from Mel Brown of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre in regard to the Aboriginal Legal Access Program that brought up a large number of civil law issues. These consultations were conducted with groups that included young people, women, men and Elders in the communities of Kyogle, Cabbage Tree Island, Ballina and Lismore
  • Consultation conducted by Mel Brown for the Working Group in Lismore with ‘Rekindling the Spirit’ Aboriginal Men’s Group, based upon case studies developed by the Working Group and including legal advice provided on the day by lawyers from both Legal Aid NSW and the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre
  • Preliminary consultation visit to Lismore by representatives from Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, which included discussions with local Lismore Aboriginal Community Justice Group, Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, Aboriginal Legal Service, Legal Aid and Financial Counsellor, and
  • Consultations conducted in Tabulam by Professor Chris Cunneen of the University of NSW, conducted as part of research commissioned by Legal Aid entitled ‘The Civil and Family Law Needs of Aboriginal People in NSW’. This group consisted of adult men’s and women’s focus groups.

Summary of findings

Overall the consultations identified a diverse range of civil law issues and potential responses to the issues that would raise awareness about them in the community and also educate the community members in regard to how they can seek remedies for them. Primary among these issues were:

  1. Credit and Debt
  2. Apprehended Violence Orders
  3. Driving and Fines
  4. Police Powers

As can be seen from the above issues another major finding of the consultations was that issues raised included legal issues outside of civil law issues. Based upon this it was not feasible or indeed appropriate to limit discussions and advice to only the areas of civil law. This is something that should be considered in any future engagement with Aboriginal communities.

Such a response is also in keeping with widely accepted knowledge that a holistic response to issues faced by Aboriginal people is required to properly address the issues they face. This can particularly be found in recent NSW Government policy documents such as the NSW Aboriginal Justice Plan, the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs Two Ways Together, and most recently the NSW State Plan. It is also something that is discussed at length in the “Civil and Family Law Needs of Aboriginal People in NSW” research. The “Civil and Family law Needs of Aboriginal People in NSW” also suggests that unresolved civil and family law issues can often lead to criminal matters, highlighting the need not to respond to them as independent and separate issues. Within all these documents Aboriginal people are over-represented on all indicators of social disadvantage, not least of which is over representation in the justice system.

In light of this while the primary findings are around civil law issues, consideration has been given to criminal law – particularly in regard to local court process, and family law, particularly in regard to care and protection matters.

Summary of Responses to Findings

The overwhelming response that was suggested by participants to raise awareness about civil law (and criminal and family law) was for education to be provided to community members and Aboriginal agency workers. To address this the Working Group has decided upon two major responses to the issues that have been raised, namely:

Law for Non Lawyers will be provided to Aboriginal community members who participated in consultations for the project; in particular this will include members from the ‘Rekindling the Spirit’ Mens Group who participated in the specific consultation with an advice clinic run by Mel Brown of Northern Rivers CLC. On the advice of the Aboriginal Access Worker at Northern Rivers CLC the 2 day workshop will be provided in Casino on 23 and 24 June 2009 (program attached). This will allow members from the Lismore community as well as the Tabulam community to attend the workshop, something that provides an opportunity to link the project with the ‘Civil and Family Needs’ research commissioned by Legal Aid NSW. Also invited to attend are Aboriginal workers from Lismore Court, which includes an Aboriginal Community Justice Group Coordinator and a Circle Sentencing Project Officer, both of whom are seen to be at critical points of the justice system in regard to Aboriginal people. The Law for Non Lawyers workshop will be a one off event, with a more sustained response provide through a series of targeted Community Legal Education.

Series of Targeted Community Legal Education. This has been incorporated into Legal Aid’s Community Legal Education Strategic Plan 2009-2011 and also conforms with Legal Aid’s Corporate Plan and the Aboriginal Justice Service Delivery Plan 2009-2011. No dates have yet been set, however issues will be based around those reported in the findings of this project.

A resources list has also been produced by the Law and Justice Foundation for this project. The list provides, it provides links to online publications and resources on issues ranging from credit and debt, discrimination, domestic violence orders, employment, housing to legal services, courts and police. These were all issues that were raised by those consulted in this project.

Brochures from Working Group member agencies, in particular LawAccess, will also be distributed to community members and workers both at the Law for Non Lawyers Workshop and the series of targeted Community Legal Education Sessions.

Scott Hawkins, Director, Aboriginal Services, Legal Aid NSW