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Legal Aid Forum: towards 2010, 21 April 1999, Canberra.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)



Legal Aid Forum: Towards 2010


21 April 1999



Commissioner Colin Dillon - (delivered on behalf of the ATSIC Chairman Gatjil Djerrkura OAM) 


In keeping with Indigenous practice, I want to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people who have held ceremonies in this region for many thousands of years.  


Let me say that I appreciate this opportunity to give an Indigenous perspective on legal aid.  


Legal aid is important to Indigenous communities. 


The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last week that there are now more people behind bars than ever.  


The highest number of Indigenous people in prison custody was recorded in Queensland with 1 090 indigenous prisoners. 


Western Australia followed with 870 and the Northern Territory with 440.  


But let’s look at these figures another way. 


We see that in the Northern Territory 72.8 per cent of the prison population was Indigenous. 


Next highest was Western Australia with Indigenous people making up 33.1 per cent of the prison population and Queensland with 21.6 per cent.  


These three jurisdictions have spiralling rates of Indigenous imprisonment.  


Communities and Legal Services 


In this context, the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services cannot be over-stated.  


The legal services are in the best position to understand the needs and views of the communities they serve.  


They are run by members of the Indigenous community and staff are committed to their work. 


In addition, legal services are located close to Indigenous communities. 


Nearly 60 per cent of them are the only legal aid office in the region.  


Such physical accessibility and cultural acceptance is a strength not found elsewhere. 


The vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people choose to use Indigenous Legal Services rather than mainstream providers. 


Over the past few years, ATSIC and the legal services have worked together on a major program of reforms. 


As a result, the services can now be truthfully described as providers of quality legal-aid services.  


We have broken new ground in the legal aid area through the introduction of open tendering and the development of best practice standards. 


I say with some pride that few other service providers have gone down these paths. 


And if they have, they certainly haven’t gone to the extent that ATSIC has.  


Other reforms we’ve fostered over the past three years include: 


legal services that have re-focussed on their primary objective of keeping Indigenous people out of custody; better service for women; and an extremely effective network of field officers to help Indigenous people when they first come into contact with the criminal justice system.


But despite all these strengths, the legal services cannot meet the overwhelming need.  


The Attorney-General’s Department, Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres have a role to play as well.  


Resources should always go to the areas of highest need. 


And on any analysis, you would find a high proportion of Indigenous Australians amongst the most needy.  


ATSIC is pleased to have facilitated formal, co-operative arrangements between legal services and Legal Aid Commissions in Victoria and Queensland. 


We hope to develop similar arrangements in other States and Territories.  


Family Violence 


Recently, there have been a number of reports about domestic violence in Indigenous communities.  


Violence results from a number of issues, including the lack of education and meaningful employment.  


But education and employment are not in ATSIC’s brief and domestic violence is not one of our primary responsibilities.  


Even though the primary responsibility for family violence issues lies with the State and Territory Governments and other Commonwealth Government agencies, ATSIC has achieved much in this area. 


Let me outline some of ATSIC’s initiatives. 


We have amended policy guidelines for legal services to ensure that women are better served.


We are developing closer links between legal services and the women’s community legal centres funded by the Attorney-General’s Department. This gives Indigenous women access to more services and it overcomes any conflicts of interest.


We have established a violence prevention unit in Kempsey in NSW to provide legal services, protection and support for victims and their children. We will establish further units in Moree in NSW and in an area of high need in South Australia — probably Po
rt Augusta.


The ATSIC Board recently set aside a further $2 million to develop more of these units in other high need areas.


We have established family violence advocacy services in Cape York and Kalgoorlie to develop best practice models that other areas can copy.


We have funded the development of training packages on working with Indigenous victims of family violence.


We have also funded night patrols in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Some simply provide sobering up shelters, while others intervene in disputes.  

Looking for a fairer system  


From an Indigenous perspective, the justice system will deliver fairness only when the massive rate of over-representation of our people in custody ceases to exist.  


Despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, we are still 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.  


Part of the reason is the hard-line policies of state governments. 


Chris Cuneen discusses these issues in his recent report Zero Tolerance Policing: Implications for Indigenous People. 


A fair justice system would also give people a chance.  


I don’t mean this in terms of being let off lightly, but in terms of being given a chance from the beginning.  


The emphasis must be creating the right environment for families to flourish and children to reach their potential.  


The National Crime Prevention Unit has explored some good ideas along these lines in their recent series of reports. 


I’d like to commend them for their efforts.  


But there are many more options to look at among the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission. 


That advice has not yet been exhausted by state and territory governments.  


Finally, fairness means listening to Indigenous communities and respecting our views and cultures.  


We expect more than lip service about consultation. 


We expect full recognition of our rights as citizens. 


And we expect justice systems to operate in such a way as to deliver those rights to us. 


Thank you.




jy  1999-08-31  16:02