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SELECT COMMITTEE ON REGIONAL AND REMOTE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES
21/05/2009
Effectiveness of state, territory and Commonwealth government policies on regional and remote Indigenous communities

CHAIR —I welcome the representatives of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission. Information on parliamentary privilege, the protection of witnesses and evidence has previously been provided to you. The committee has before it your submission and I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Ms Cox —Thank you for inviting us to make submissions and to be here today. We, as the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, welcomed the report Little children are sacred and the recommendations arising out of that report, particularly those recommendations addressing offending, which were both proactive and long term. In particular, the improved resources for child protection services and police, improved access to rehabilitation for offenders, a comprehensive alcohol supply reduction strategy and the strengthened community justice mechanisms, which would enhance community participation, law and justice concerns.

The Legal Aid Commission has attempted, since early 2007, to try to fill the gaps where the other legal providers have been unable to go. We have worked collaboratively with NAAJA and CAALAS and we support them in their submissions to you. As I said, we have attempted, over the last couple of years, to fill the gaps where they have been unable to go. For example, where they have gone to bush courts we have gone out to communities where the courts have not been going. We have used our resources. We have some limited funding from the Attorney-General’s to assist us. We have employed Indigenous liaison officers. I am sorry that my Indigenous liaison officer from Darwin is not here today, but unfortunately Mr Petterson is sick. We have him working in Darwin and we have another Indigenous liaison officer in our Alice Springs office. The commission has offices in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine, Darwin and Palmerston. For these purposes, our offices in Tennant Creek and Alice Springs are particularly important.

We have conducted outreach through more than 100 visits with our lawyers and officers, and we have attempted to coordinate other service providers to fill the gaps where people have needed legal assistance. Through our visits we have uncovered a lot of unmet legal needs, as you can imagine. Some of those needs which we anticipated would be there were not, and we discovered a lot of others. I can give you examples of some of those issues. They include credit and debt issues, consumer issues, police complaints, including inadequate responses, warrant issues, alcohol issues, Centrelink welfare rights, housing tenancy, transport support, work health claims, employment law, unclaimed superannuation, Corporations Law, including commercial business advice, banking issues relating to ID, and other civil law issues.

I will just pause here to say the Legal Aid Commission really is not funded for civil law and has not been since 1996. We depend on things such as the intervention money to be able to address unmet legal needs in those areas and we provide some services in our limited capacity. We have discovered a lot of unmet legal needs and we have attempted to address those mainly by bringing other service providers in, such as ASIC and consumer protection. We have also used some of our funds to produce DVDs. We are talking about huge gaps in legal education out in the communities. One community that we visited—because we wanted to make culturally sensitive DVDs imparting legal information—we asked, ‘What would you like us to make a DVD on—domestic violence, going to court or whatever?’ The response was, ‘The legal system. We don’t know where you get your law from.’ That took us back a bit and we had to regroup. Then, through a lot of consultation, we devised a DVD on the Australian legal system for that particular community, which is in Yolngu Matha and it is subtitled. I can make it available to you if you would like to see it.

CHAIR —That would be very useful.

Ms Cox —We have also made other DVDs. In Tennant Creek it was child in need of care DVDs. In Tiwi Island it was to do with domestic violence. These DVDs have been made with the people in the communities. We have discovered some good actors. They have been in language, Tiwi or Warlpiri and Warumungu in Tennant Creek and they have been very well received.

Primarily the Legal Aid Commission is focused on criminal law, family law and legal education, but it has really focussed our attention on the real needs of legal education in the communities and how there really is very little. NAAJA has been attempting to do more and we have also been attempting to do more, but we need resources for it. That is the bottom line.

CHAIR —How widely distributed has that actually been? Whilst you have created them, is there one particular time? Did you have it across the Yolngu Matha? What sort of distribution did you have?

Ms Cox —I will ask my policy officer to address that.

Ms Hussin —We have taken a different approach depending on the region. With the one that we have made at Galiwinku we made a batch of 5,000 copies. The idea was that most communities and most people will have access to DVD players and when they know people in the DVD they will put it on and they will actually watch it numerous times. That was our key target way of distributing the DVDs.

This year we are also going out to communities and doing film nights. We have our own supply of a canvas screen that we have had made up and a data beam projector and speakers. We are self-sufficient, which is good, and it is a lot cheaper. We went to Milingimbi and Maningrida a couple of weeks ago, and we have also got plans for Ramingining, Gapuwiyak and Galiwinku. We are looking at having it screened as part of a male ROM festival, and we have also been talking to the Garma Festival about having screenings there. At all of those screenings we have copies available so people can take them away and watch them. We have actually had feedback in relation to that DVD in particular from a whole range of service providers, including Balanda service providers, who are saying, ‘Now I understand the Australian legal system.’ At first we thought they would not want to know anything about the Constitution or the sources of law going right back through history, but people are really interested in that and it gives them a context to draw on for the present.

In relation to the Tennant Creek productions we are doing the same sort of thing. We will have film nights. I was just recently at Canteen Creek, where we have a film night and then the next day we are available to talk to community members about a whole range of legal issues. Where possible we bring along other services with us. Consumer Affairs has been very proactive in attending those outreach communities with us and there is a whole range of consumer issues in those communities. It gives people a way of feeling comfortable about approaching those services and starting that conversation.

CHAIR —There are a number of recurring issues that might be not so much thematic, but as we have had changes in the community, such as the introduction of police officers, one of them is around the issue of the rights of police officers to come into your dwelling or residence or move you from your veranda and so on. This is just around some areas. In Milingimbi the day before yesterday there were a lot of issues and confusion around that. It would be informative for me, I have to say, because I am very reluctant to put what I think, because I might be wrong as well. With the nuances of the law I am really not qualified, but it would be terrific to be able to have a question and answer in regard to what rights policemen actually have and what you should do in the event of this or that. I kept saying, ‘Listen, if it has been unlawful by a police officer or, in fact, anyone then you have rights and you should complain and you should know where to go.’

Ms Cox —We have developed an education kit made for schools. It has a video and learning sequence. It is called ‘Cop This’. This is aimed at young people, particularly young Indigenous people. It is acted out by the young Indigenous actors and it is all about what you do if you are spoken to by police, if you are arrested and getting in trouble. I think it starts off with a group of boys outside a house where one is a lookout and the other ones go and break in, and then what ensues afterwards, including records of interview at the police station and whether they are charged or whatever. We have done some of that, but I take your point. I think that NAAJA has also recently done some work in this area.

Ms Hussin —When we show films that DVD is used as part of that. It was filmed at the Bagot community and there is a range of people from different communities that people will relate to, ‘I know his cousin’ or whatever. The music that is in the DVD was written and performed by the young kids from the community, so it has that kind of feel to it. We do have a question and answer session around that when we get the opportunity to do that.

CHAIR —As you are aware, NAAJA gave evidence earlier this morning so we will have to write to them to get that piece of material. Across the suite of materials that you have, I wonder if you could give us a single copy of each one if they are available?

Ms Cox —Yes, certainly. We can do that today.

CHAIR —I think that will be very useful for the committee. Thank you very much for that.

Ms Cox —I would also like to make the point that, following the intervention, as a result we do not have increased Indigenous people coming to our service charged with sexual offences in relation to children, but we do have an increased situation of children in need of care for all sorts of reasons. I do not know whether you are aware that in relation to the state-federal divide of the Legal Aid Commissions we get funding from the Commonwealth government in relation to Commonwealth matters, but that children in need of care, in fact, is a state or territory matter. That is really where we felt the results of more intervention in that area, so that is a real problem.

I will also make the point, just for your interest, that we have an increased number of children abused not just in the Indigenous community; most of our cases recently are non-Indigenous and to do with sexual abuse in the community. It should not be just targeted in the Indigenous community. It is a real problem across-the-board.

The other problem that we see, from the commission’s point of view and our resources, is the growing imprisonment rate and the inappropriateness of long-term prison for a lot of these offenders. There should be a much bigger focus on rehabilitation. I have been saying it for 30 years, but it really needs to be done out of jails and in the community. Nothing happens very well in prison for all sorts of reasons, and our Indigenous prisoners are there short term, mainly for driving offences and for minor assaults. There is not enough time to turn them around on anything, but it does increase the prison numbers. We have really felt that on our resources.

The final point I would like to make in terms of this inquiry is that we welcome the need for more focus on better housing and policing in the communities, but when you do make those changes there is going to be an ongoing effect. We need to be there to give independent advice, because a lot of issues arise out of income management, housing issues, employment and, of course, greater policing. I would like you to take that into account.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT —We heard from NAAJA this morning that they effectively have not had a funding increase, which you just touched on as well. What would you estimate is your funding shortfall? I know it is: how long is a piece of string, to a certain extent.

Ms Cox —We are in a deficit on our Territory side in relation to the criminal representation mainly, and also the children in need of care and the welfare side. I would have to take that on notice to give you the actual deficit at the moment. I can tell you that in the federal budget there has been no increase in Territory funding for the Legal Aid Commission. We have maintained our funding and that is a good thing, but we will be talking to the Territory government in relation to increasing our funding on the Territory side.

Senator SIEWERT —What has been the increase in your workload?

Ms Cox —Again, I will have to take that on notice. Anecdotally, we are seeing much more activity in the courts in relation to welfare cases, children in need of care, particularly out in Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Darwin.

Ms Hussin —As to the other matters that were alluded to in relation to the civil needs, we have really only scratched the surface in relation to assisting people in those areas, to provide that ongoing assistance and develop a relationship with new communities to get people to come forward and seek that assistance. As Ms Cox said, that is an area that we are not funded for. We do have some additional funding as a result of the intervention, but if we were to do it on an ongoing basis that would be an area where we would seek further funding.

Senator SIEWERT —With respect to the new funding that was announced in the budget for the intervention, have you had a look at that and whether any of that would be available to the commission?

Ms Cox —We have been told that we will be funded for the next three years I understand on the same amount of funding we have had for our intervention work. We welcome that, because it means that we can keep doing what we have set up and what we are doing at the moment. We have had to employ people. We have had to establish relationships out in the communities. That is being done and we really want to have an opportunity to keep doing it. That is a good thing.

Senator SIEWERT —Last year we were up here—it was a different committee but with many of the same members—and we were looking at the changes that were being made to the FaHCSIA bills around the parent system and the narrow casting. We were talking to some of our witnesses around what is being done in the community around education over underaged sexual activity. If I recall correctly, there was the beginnings of some project work. I was reminded of that when you mentioned the DVDs. There was some initial work being done, but it had not made much progress at the time. Have you been involved in any of those projects?

Ms Hussin —You may be referring to the NT government’s series of audio CDs, focussing more on the promised marriage issue and reminding people about the law in relation to minors and sexual engagement with minors, but focused more on that structure. That is the only thing I can think of that is really focused in that area. I cannot say that I have ever heard of anyone being aware of that resource or using it in any way, but that is not to say it is not happening.

Senator SIEWERT —The resource that has been produced?

Ms Hussin —Yes, the government resource.

Senator SIEWERT —I understood from the witnesses that there needed to be a broader support mechanism and education of younger people to teach them what is and is not acceptable in a more supportive way. The concern was that the police and the criminal justice system is going in and there is not the education side. Has that changed?

Ms Hussin —From a legal education perspective, I do not think that has changed. That is probably because most of the legal services see that more as a health education issue and that they are more likely to have a receptive audience in that context. The more recent information that has come through about the changes to the Care and Protection Act and mandatory reporting do highlight further concerns in that regard. I think that services, at present, are still regrouping to try to work out how to respond to providing that information in a way that still encourages access to those sorts of supportive mechanisms. I am just thinking as we are talking now. There is also an NT government program around the pornography laws. I understand there was some project unfolding in relation to that, but again we have not been engaged in that process at all.

Senator SIEWERT —With the increasing number of children that you are dealing with, how do you work with other services to start addressing issues? I realise you deal with the legal side of things, but are there then community support organisations that come in and work in communities to start addressing the causes?

Ms Hussin —It depends. Some communities have stronger support mechanisms and agencies that are better functioning and have that capacity to a larger degree, and some others do not. Where they are there, we do.

Senator SIEWERT —You opened with comments around the Little children are sacred report and talked about the issues around a comprehensive approach to rehabilitation and grog. We have heard a large number of comments saying there are just not enough rehab and support services dealing with alcohol. You have probably read NAAJA’s submission and that is echoing a number of other submissions that we have seen. They are saying that just bringing in the restrictions without those support services does not work. I was interested to hear your comments around the comprehensive approach to alcohol. I must admit that that is not what we have been hearing.

Ms Hussin —Those comments were related to the recommendation in the report.

Senator SIEWERT —That is what I wanted to clear up. You are supportive of the recommendations. I am sorry, I should not put words in your mouth. Do you agree with some of the other witnesses who are saying, ‘We’re not seeing that comprehensive approach’?

Ms Cox —Absolutely.

Senator SIEWERT —What are the key elements that are missing?

Ms Cox —There need to be more community based programs. There needs to be rehabilitation aimed at offenders in their communities and not outside the communities. I understand that there will be offenders who need to be in jail for a long time and they will need to be taken out of the communities, but the majority of offenders do not need to be removed from the communities. They need to be rehabilitated. Basically, more community based programs in the community. We just do not have the resources in the Territory, in the correctional services, which is aimed at those sorts of programs as opposed to building a new jail. We do need a new jail, but as to building a new jail and having people locked up for long periods of time, the whole of the criminal justice framework is towards not giving people bail easily, keeping them on remand, keeping them in prison and giving them sentences with minimum non-paroles that are high. Eventually people have to get out and they have to be able to deal with the community from which they come. This is not being addressed. We really need a lot more officers out in the communities where people can do community work orders. I have not seen anyone do a community work order for years. They just do not get them.

Senator ADAMS —That was a question that I asked the last group of witnesses—why is that just not an option? It just does not appear to happen. For a lot of these people it probably would be a very good way to rehabilitate them, have them work in their community and be supervised properly.

Ms Cox —It is probably a great shame for a young man to be picking up rubbish in the communities.

Senator ADAMS —That is right. I know in Western Australia that it is working well, if you can get the right people to be the supervisors. That is a solution they are using there.

Ms Cox —That is the sort of thing we would like to see. People do need assistance with alcohol and drug abuse, because a lot of communities have dysfunctional people in them. They need a lot of assistance in the mental health areas as well.

Senator ADAMS —My next question was actually to look at substance and drug abuse. In your opinion, are you having more and more cases involved in that respect?

Ms Cox —It is well established that the criminal offending is more usually than not associated with alcohol or substance abuse.

Senator ADAMS —Are drugs in dry communities on the rise?

Ms Cox —There is increasing drug use in the communities, yes, as there is everywhere. The communities are not isolated away from the rest of our culture. Drug abuse is rife throughout.

Senator ADAMS —What is the role of your Indigenous community liaison officer? What exactly does he do?

Ms Cox —We have two of them. I will let my policy officer describe that.

Ms Hussin —Her function is to make the connection with the community, arrange outreach visits, organise interpreters where they are required—basically all the things that use their own knowledge, experience and existing connections that they have with communities. They gave us advice on culturally sensitive issues, especially in the early days in Central Australia of this project, where there were many funerals. There was a lot of assistance and advice about negotiating, and still providing the service but doing so in a way that is not going to offend and is respectful. Even though our lawyers have been working with a whole range of diverse clients in the past, many do not work in Indigenous communities or have not had that experience, so it is giving advice about protocols and procedures. Cooking the barbecue seems to be part of the duty statement more recently, which is a very important function and does get a lot of people engaged, and then providing feedback post the report. The other function that we are performing as part of this outreach activity is advocacy assistance for communities. Post the community visits we will have a debrief where we will talk about some of the advocacy issues that the community has raised and how we could assist in a broader way beyond just the individual client-solicitor representation. We have written letters to ministers on behalf of communities, sent petitions on behalf of communities, engaged with the police, met with Centrelink, met with Consumer Affairs, written to the Liquor Commission and those sorts of functions as well. They will provide us with the advice about what the community really meant when they said something. They will have that context and it is of enormous assistance.

Senator ADAMS —Do you work closely with the shires?

Ms Hussin —We try to. Again, that differs from region to region. One area where we have been doing a lot of work and which is on the court circuit, but we have made an exception because there was such a high level of need there, is the Elliott community. We have provided numerous workshops in the Elliott community and to community members around that area in a range of areas. We have worked reasonably effectively with shire staff as part of that process. We have written to the shire and said we would like to strengthen those relationships because, of course, their staff are there on the ground all the time. We are planning visits and organising the best date, or other agencies are going there because it quite often can happen that there will be eight other agencies visiting that community in that day and people get swamped by information. It is all those sorts of things where you need a person on the ground to liaise with. We would really like to strengthen those ties with the shires, but we get the feeling that at the moment they are in the early days of consolidating their activities and they do not have that much capacity to work with agencies such as ours, which may be seen as optional extras at this stage when they need to get their core business going.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you for your time this morning. I want to ask you about the area of your activities in relation to increase in children in need of care and the representation for people through the legal system. What sort of cases are we talking about here?

Ms Cox —Mainly children who have been neglected,, and not children as a result of sexual abuse.

Senator CROSSIN —Are these families that are now under the watch of Family and Community Services?

Ms Cox —Yes. They have come to the attention of Family and Community Services.

Senator CROSSIN —What role does the Legal Aid Commission play in those sorts of cases?

Ms Cox —It depends on who we are acting for. We may be acting for one of the parents. It is coming to a parenting program and a situation where the child is better looked after, or it might be coming to an agreement that the child is taken into the care of the minister and placed in a foster family, or we may be appointed as the child’s representative and advocating for the child.

Senator CROSSIN —How many cases of those would you have had in the last 12 months?

Ms Cox —I would have to take that on notice. I can probably supply that to you today.

Senator CROSSIN —How many cases of child abuse prosecution do you think there have been in the last 12 months?

Ms Cox —Do you mean in relation to children in need of care?

Senator CROSSIN —No, in relation to child sexual abuse.

Ms Cox —Is that Indigenous children or non-Indigenous?

Senator CROSSIN —I am interested to know if you have a breakdown of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and whether the perpetrators are actually Indigenous or non-Indigenous.

Ms Cox —I cannot give you figures. I can give you anecdotal evidence. I am aware of most of what we do in relation to defending, because we do defend people charged with offences arising out of abuse of children. I can advise you that in my experience as director of the commission and being aware of the cases coming through most of the perpetrators are not Indigenous and the children are not Indigenous. That is perhaps because we are not an Indigenous service provider. We defend those who have a conflict or if they have been referred to our agency from either CAALAS or NAAJA.

Senator CROSSIN —In your submission that you sent to us—I am conscious of the fact that it was last year, but I think it is still relevant—you outline a number of recommendations from the Little children are sacred report that unfortunately have sat there like many other reports. They go to offender rehabilitation. It does talk about increased community based rehabilitation and it also talks about better delivery of programs to change behaviour. One of the issues that was raised in NAAJA’s submission to us today, which I did not get a chance to talk about, is programs for children who are now adults who have been victims of sexual abuse and who offended themselves because they were also abused. So, support for victims of sexual abuse who are now offending. Do you have any knowledge of what sorts of support systems there are in the Territory for people in that situation?

Ms Cox —I would not say it is support. Most offenders who participate in the sexual offender program, which is available in the prison, are victims themselves. I say that anecdotally, again, as a criminal defence lawyer. It is invariable that your defendant has been abused themselves if they are abusing. It is not always, but most of the time. It is not a support, as such, but mainly a program that they need to go through to stop them reoffending. Often within that program, as I understand it, it is catering for people who are victims themselves. It is not support, as such, but it is within the program which is aimed at stopping them from reoffending.

Senator CROSSIN —What sorts of programs are also out there for victims of sexual abuse who do not offend, that may live on, say, remote communities?

Ms Cox —I am not aware of any.

Ms Hussin —I am not aware of any, but that is not our core area of work. We get them at the point where they have offended. I think there has been some voicing of concern about that, especially at the young stage, as in something specific for young people. There has been talk about the need for that.

Senator CROSSIN —Are there any for non-Indigenous people that you are aware of?

Ms Cox —Only if you can afford it. You can go to the Tamarind Centre of somewhere like that where you have got psychological or psychiatric issues. There are counselling services available to some extent.

Ms Hussin —I am not aware of the full detail of programs, such as Head Space, which is the new program that is specifically aimed for young people with emotional and mental illnesses. That may include programs such as that, but I am not aware of them.

Ms Cox —There are things like the Rape Crisis Centre which deal with predominantly female victims. I do not know of any equivalent that deals with males.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you.

CHAIR —On behalf of the committee I extend our thanks to the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission and for the evidence that you have provided to us today. Because of the nature of these matters I am sure we would like to speak to all the people who provide evidence for far longer, so there may well be some questions on notice that will be provided to you through the secretariat.

Ms Cox —As I said, we will make those DVDs available today for you. I would like to know how many I should supply?

CHAIR —You could just supply the one. We can make copies if there are no copyright issues.

Ms Cox —No. Thank you.

[11.28 am]