Claire Schwager

Aboriginal Legal Services
Winter 2015

If you want to really get your head around what it means to work in a fast-paced and unpredictable legal environment, I can’t recommend a placement at the Aboriginal Legal Service (“ALS”) in Moree highly enough. There was no typical day during my six-week internship at the ALS as part of the Aurora Internship winter 2015 round. The work I completed was wide-ranging and responsive to the issues that presented in the office on any given day. For example, one day I arrived at the office at 8:30am with no planned tasks to complete, only to receive a call at 8:45 explaining that there were four fresh custodies at the cells. Over the next few hours, my supervisor and I visited the clients in the cells, obtained instructions from them, consulted with families, local Indigenous Support Workers, and rehabilitation facilities, and applied for bail. On a separate occasion, circuit court in Boggabilla turned into a trip to the Indigenous Community of Toomelah in a desperate attempt to trace down a client who had failed to appear at court.

As a fifth year law student with no previous experience in a legal office, the ALS provided the perfect opportunity for me to get a taste of a wide range of legal work in a relatively short period of time. Both of the solicitors in the office were keen to let me try new things and witness all aspects of their interaction with clients. As such, I drafted legal representations, conducted legal research, visited clients in the cells, completed bail and subpoena applications, and travelled to Mungindi, Boggabilla, Wee Waa, and Narrabri on circuit court.

Perhaps most exciting was the opportunity to speak on a number of matters before the Magistrate in Moree Local Court. On my first day, my supervisor took me to meet the Magistrate before court, and asked him whether he would permit me to mention some cases over the course of my internship. Later that day, I officially sought leave to appear in a matter from which we were seeking to withdraw. I was incredibly lucky that the Magistrate was happy for me to proceed and with my supervisor by my side whispering advice when necessary, I was successfully able to make the appropriate representations. Throughout the course of my internship, I also mentioned matters in which the ALS sought adjournments, to vacate mention dates, and to set dates for hearings.  These experiences were invaluable, in that they gave me an opportunity to gain a greater familiarity with how criminal law cases are run in local courts. Furthermore, I realised quickly that I really enjoyed this aspect of legal work, such that I am now interested in scoping opportunities to work in criminal law at the local court level in the future.

I had anticipated that working with what I knew to be a disadvantaged Indigenous community would have some sort of emotional toll on me, and whilst this was true, I was also incredibly heartened to witness some inspiring stories during my time in Moree. These stories involved people who had worked hard to give up extreme drug addictions, obtain a drivers’ license, and secure full time employment. These achievements were often made despite remoteness, lack of opportunity, restricted access to social services, poverty, and, in the case of many young people, little adult guidance or support. Despite the problems experienced by Indigenous people in Moree, I witnessed countless examples of community members participating in great displays of support for each other. The Field Officer and Administration Officer in the ALS Office where both Aboriginal, and seemed to know every single person who sought assistance through the ALS. Every single client was welcomed by all staff members in a way that was non-judgemental and eager to assist. On my final night in Moree, I briefly visited a Trivia Night Fundraiser for a young Aboriginal boy who was fighting cancer for the fourth time. The display of support from the community was evident in the great turn out for the event, and the fact that this initiative was only one of a number of events planned in support of the cause.

I could write a much longer piece detailing the significance of many more experiences I had during my time at the ALS. I hope, however, that this article has given you an idea of how incredibly valuable I found my time interning in Moree to be. In implementing the skills I had gained during my law degree in a practical context, and witnessing the hard work of staff in the office, I now have a better understanding of the way the law can both disadvantage and achieve justice for all Australians. This has been an invaluable lesson. Regardless of where my career takes me, my actions will always be influenced by an understanding and appreciation of how the law impacts the most vulnerable in Australian society. ​