During the 2015 Winter break I decided to make the most of my spare time and spend it doing something constructive. This meant applying for a five-week legal internship through the Aurora Internship Program. The Aurora Internship is predicated on three disciplines: legal, social science and anthropology. I was unaware of the interrelationship between the three prior to commencing my internship, however all go towards informing a native title claim.
I had heard positive things about this internship program and was unsure as to my career path. This was my main motivator for applying; to experiment in native title law and to decide whether I was cut out for the corporate or social justice world. Having gotten through the applications, I was placed with Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) in Perth. YMAC is one of the largest Native Title Representative Bodies (NTRBs), advising on claims in the Pilbara, Murchison and Gascoyne regions. The large areas YMAC represents signify the workload of the already under-resourced lawyers. However, this is where the legal interns came in, bright eyed and ready to help.
The Office Environment
Prior to commencing the internship we had been told to prepare for a stressful environment and not to take any negativity personally. This meant I went into my first day feeling extreme unease as to the work environment. However, my fears were immediately quashed when I arrived at the office. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and friendly. This helped me build strong relationships over the course of the five weeks and I believe this aspect truly distinguished YMAC.
Throughout my time at YMAC I was invited to attend various work lunches, morning teas, coffees and participate in lunchtime sports. Additionally, people would often stop by for a chat in the ‘intern playpen’ where the legal interns sat. Overall it was a very social atmosphere. This was probably enhanced by the fact that there were six legal interns working there at a time, half from the Aurora Program and the other half through YMAC clerkships.
Additionally, the lawyers were always incredibly helpful, friendly and approachable. If I had an issue with a task or needed further clarification, no one hesitated to sit down with me and explain it in more detail. It is through these informal chats where I learnt the most about native title and the problems inherent with the system.
The interns were initially given inductions with various departments within YMAC. This included legal, heritage, communications and anthropology. These were incredibly useful to have and highlighted the fact that native title was not going to be straightforward. It also demonstrated the multifaceted nature of native title law.
Then it was time to put this newfound knowledge into place. My tasks varied in difficulty and exposed me to a range of various content. I was required to write a case summary on a recent ruling YMAC had been involved in to circulate to the lawyers. I was also involved in lengthy research regarding a possible way to challenge a Full Court decision and whether this would be likely to succeed. This was a task that utilised the problem solving approach I have learnt at university. I was also involved in creating a chronology for the eight-year relationship between a mining company and claim group to assist a lawyer who had just recently taken over the case.
Additionally, I was lucky enough to be flown to Port Hedland to assist the lawyer there for a week. Despite feeling like a fish out of water on a plane filled with fluoro vests, this was an excellent experience. I was required to formulate the main steps of creating a small business. To consolidate this I met with small business providers to assess the impact they could have for Indigenous businesses. This work continued back in Perth, where I continued to send emails, make phone calls and also hired out the boardroom to conduct a meeting!
However, as an intern I was not immune from the occasional data entry, scanning and rewording legislation from the 19th century to make user-friendly. I was also required to assist in forming an appeals book.
I believe the work assisted me in consolidating my legal research skills and also helped my professionalism and interpersonal skills. It gave me experience to a wide range of legal aspects; from procedure, constitutional law, evidence and also to general commercial considerations. It was a combination of theoretical and practical work and challenged me in ways that I had not experienced before.
Prior to undertaking this internship I was very confident about my knowledge of native title. I could easily recite the elements required to prove a claim and although I understood the evidentiary difficulties, I had no idea of the extent of what needed to be proven. I was also unaware of the turmoil within communities from needing to define artificial boundaries and characterise who was in their claim group. These are issues that are magnified when you consider that the process of getting a determination often lasts ten years. I was also ignorant to the fact that a lot of these claims failed due to issues between community members, and it was not simply a community group versus State situation.
Overall, native title is a complex area of law that is overrun with systematic issues through trying to make two cultures intermesh. It was however an excellent learning curve reaching this conclusion. It also gave me a newfound respect for the lawyers in this field, as they have to be a jack-of-all-trades in dealing with all the aspects of a native title claim.
I would highly recommend the Aurora Internship Program to anyone who has an interest in social justice or in native title generally. Applications for the winter 2016 round will be open online via their website from 7 March through 1 April 2016. Visit http://www.auroraproject.com.au/aboutapplyinginternship