The Darwin Aboriginal Communities Legal Education Project (the Project) was created to better understand and respond to the legal education needs of Aboriginal people in Darwin communities. The project developed a culturally appropriate, community driven legal education resource. This resource aims to enhance access to and understanding of laws in the NT among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in Darwin Aboriginal Communities. NTLAC developed the Project proposal in partnership with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation (LNAC) in early 2015.
Project goals included:
• Enable Legal services to improve how they identify, understand and address the legal issues, needs, barriers and challenges for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Darwin Aboriginal communities;
• Increase capability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Darwin Aboriginal Communities to identify, understand and seek assistance to resolve legal issues and advocate for improved justice outcomes; and
• Identify opportunities for future collaboration with Darwin Aboriginal Communities and key service providers / community groups.
An Aboriginal Project Officer was recruited and he established and coordinated an Aboriginal Leadership Advisory Group (ALAG). The ALAG provided strategic guidance about the project and how to build stronger and more positive relationships between Darwin Aboriginal Communities and legal services. ALAG members contributed their wealth of personal and professional experiences and insight on legal issues impacting on Darwin Aboriginal Communities.
The ALAG included equal numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women and participants acted in an individual capacity based on their community cultural experience and expertise, rather than representing organisations. Transport was available to the group, with culturally inclusive catering such as local traditional magpie goose cooked and prepared by staff and their families involved in the Project. Meetings divided into men’s and women’s discussions when appropriate in the case of sensitive topics.
NTLAC recognised that key senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Darwin were already heavily committed in their professional, personal and community responsibilities. As spokespeople, mothers, fathers, grandparents, liaison contacts for services and “go to” people helping resolve community and individual problems on a daily basis. NTLAC recognised participation and attendance would vary according to those cultural and community responsibilities, work and other commitments.
The overwhelmingly strong message from ALAG participants was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from Darwin Aboriginal Communities want and need increased and improved access to legal assistance services generally, including legal education. The legal issues of concern to people attending the group consultations included:
• Consumer issues (phone debts, door to door sales, scams,)
• Understanding assaults
• Understanding bail
• Mandatory reporting
• Animal safety (dog control)
• Family issues (resolving conflict to reduce escalation at community level)
• Motor vehicle accidents and compensation
• Child protection (the lack of understanding of this)
• Housing issues (repairs, maintenance, debts and evictions)
• Fines processes (knowing that fines exist and setting up payment plans), and
• Police complaints.
However the critical message from the ALAG was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from Darwin Aboriginal Communities must be engaged in culturally appropriate ways in order to ensure service delivery would be more effective and lasting.
The ALAG outlined some principles for working well with Aboriginal communities:
• Involve community members - in both planning and implementation of services. Build respectful relationships of trust with community members. This takes time and care as trust and respect for services may be affected by years of inadequate delivery and broken promises. Identify community leaders and seek their guidance, showing respect for their contributions.
• Identify pressing needs, communicating with community members to identify and understand their needs and interests.
• Start with small and achievable objectives, rather than trying to take on too much too early. Early successes can have "ripple" effects, inspiring community confidence, further ideas and motivating staff members.
• Use existing networks, services, and resources. Some agencies have successfully "piggybacked" on existing activities, events, and structures. This project benefited from this approach through the skills of Aboriginal staff and community networks.
• Deliver outcomes rather than just talking. Community members will remember and reflect on past experience. Consultation fatigue and lack of real action or outcomes has understandably led to mistrust and cynicism among some people and communities.
• Adapt to communities and their culture. Services funded to deliver Aboriginal specific services and programs have an obligation to adapt to the contemporary Aboriginal cultural context, or they have little chance of improving long-term outcomes.
• Recruit and retain the right staff. Competent, capable people are key to the success of service delivery - especially for Aboriginal-specific services, where outcomes depend heavily on cultural competence and the trust of the community. Personal qualities necessary to work with Aboriginal people include, self-awareness, flexibility, compassion, empathy, respect, trust, understanding and historical awareness.
NTLAC hopes that this education toolkit becomes a vehicle to extending and developing the relationships built through the last 12 months and putting into practice the above principles. NTLAC was pleased to be able to commission a local artist, Kootji Raymond from Bigapitja Pty Ltd, to design a series of culturally appropriate images for the education kit. He created a series of artworks that are used throughout the toolkit and can be adapted with other resources to communicate legal messages in an accessible manner.
There was overwhelming interest in the Project by services and Communities wanting to learn more and engage with legal services. The scope of the Project allowed it to maintain an open approach and explore a range of legal issues with the Advisory Group, Communities and services. Consultations were clear that legal education on ALL legal topics is important and desirable because Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people in the Darwin region experience legal issues in complex, multi-dimensional ways rather than just as a single family law or civil law problem.
The toolkit has been designed in a flexible format so that it may be further expanded to include a wider range of topics and resources. However it is important to strike a balance and not to overload people with information. The key learning is to continue to build confidence and trust to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people in Darwin Aboriginal Communities identify when and how to get help and from where, in order to resolve common day-to-day legal problems.