Amanda Fell

Aboriginal Legal Services
Winter 2015

I was locked up for five years; this is not entirely true. They let me out each night. I was a high school teacher for five years in a maximum security jail. This was before I made a career change and began studying law. I note my personal experience because it has undoubtedly shaped the way I see the law. In jail my classes were full of young Aboriginal men from all over New South Wales. I know their personal stories. I have seen first-hand the effects of history. Sadly I welcomed them back again and again.

There continues to be a growing over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australia’s jails. Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been described as the most punished group in the world.[1] The status quo is abhorrent. The current degree of over-representation is provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. While Indigenous people comprise only three per cent of the total population of Australia they make up around 27 per cent of the total male prisoner population.[2] The number of women is considerably higher[3] and juveniles account for 51 per cent of all detainees in detention centres.[4]

When I learnt of the Aurora Internship Program which kindly places volunteers with Native Title Representative Bodies and policy development and social justice organisations working to support the Indigenous sector, I jumped at the chance to apply. I was offered an internship at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT and I was delighted. I knew I could bring all those stories with me. I knew who I was volunteering for. I was volunteering for Darren, the 19 year old I met from Bourke, who could not read a single word in the children’s book The Cat in the Hat. I was volunteering for Terry from Walgett, who struggled to learn because of the effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. I was volunteering for every boy I met in lockup who suffered under extreme disadvantage.

At the ALS over this winter break I got to contribute to the development of a database of rehabilitation and support services and programs that are relevant, accessible and culturally appropriate to Aboriginal offenders appearing in NSW and ACT courts. I also was able to learn more about sentencing law and the significant case of Bugmy.[5] The ALS has designed an electronic catalogue of criminal law cases that consider Aboriginality. Appearing on AustLII as the Australian Courts Considering Aboriginality Case Summaries (AUCCACS) it outlines how courts must take in account ‘disadvantage experienced by a defendant due to their Aboriginality.’[6]

It was so wonderful to spend my holiday in the real world, as it is so easy in law school to forget that the names on each case we study represent a real person with real story and struggles. I am grateful for my time at the ALS because I was reminded that Fernando [7] and Bugmy[8] are real people. I encourage every law student to volunteer wherever their heart takes them. You, the young lawyer will gain far more than the generous organisation that hosts you. I know, I know: Law School is hectic, but the beauty of an Aurora internship is that you can volunteer in the winter or summer holidays. Students of law, anthropology and some social science can travel Australia-wide and gain real world experiences. Volunteer now. You will not regret it. I certainly did not.