Much has been written and spoken about crime and justice issues in Aboriginal Australia over the past few years – sometimes the reporting has descended into a kind of moral panic that appeared to paint all Aboriginal men as s-xual predators, all Aboriginal women as helpless victims of violence and all children the prey of protected serial paedophile rings.

That there are problems in the administration of justice in remote Australia is well-accepted, but how well does the day-to-day administration of justice on remote communities function, who is involved and is there any evidence of new approaches?

Crikey thought it would be useful to report on a typical day in Court in a central Australian community. Yuendumu is the largest Aboriginal community in central Australia with a population of about 1,000 Yapa (aboriginal people) and less than 100 Kardia (non-Aboriginal people). The town could never be described as pretty.

The local Council has been in administration for the last couple of years, cold winter winds blow rubbish and dust through the streets and unemployment is rife. But for all that there are some great success stories. Through the hard work and persistence of the community the blight of petrol sniffing has all but been eliminated.

Production and sales at the local Arts cooperative, Warlukurlangu Artists, are booming thanks to extraordinary artistic creativity, good management and the recent delivery by Telstra of broadband internet services and the locally owned and operated Warlpiri Media broadcasts TV and Radio programs to the many small communities spread across thousands of square kilometres of the central and western deserts.

But the best recent success story is the first appearance in the local magistrates Court of the Yuendumu Mediation and Justice Group.

With support from the Northern Territory and Commonwealth Governments, the group enhances the administration of justice at Yuendumu by providing a bridge between the Court system, the police and the community and by bringing traditional Aboriginal law practices and principles into the Court system.

They don’t yet have any clearly defined legislative basis or jurisdiction to do what they do, but they have the support of their community, the circuit Magistrate Melanie Little and her boss, NT Chief Magistrate Jenny Blokland.

It’s been a tough week for Magistrate Little but with four years experience as a circuit magistrate in central Australia she’s seen it all before. The day before her Court sat at Papunya, a couple of hundred kilometres away, without the benefit of a Luritja interpreter to translate evidence from witnesses and accused persons or her questions, comments and sentencing remarks to people before the Court.

She and her Court support staff, defence lawyers and prosecutors had camped at the Tilmouth Well Roadhouse the night before and rose early to drive the 100 kilometres of corrugated dirt road to Yuendumu.

Lower courts are the engine-room of local justice and at Yuendumu, while serious matters and offenders usually go straight to Alice Springs; the vast majority of locally-laid charges are heard in the bi-monthly circuit court sittings. On this day the Court list is massive and runs to 7 single-spaced pages, with 39 individual matters and almost 100 individual charges.

53 of those charges are vehicle-related, 20 concern violence or assault, 13 are for alcohol possession in a restricted area, four for property offences, three for weapons-possession and there is one drug possession charge. Most of the defendants before the Court are men. All bar one are local Aboriginal people. There is one magistrate, two defence lawyers, one police prosecutor, two Corrections staff, one interpreter, members of the Mediation and Justice group and Court support staff.

On a bitterly cold desert morning, Magistrate Little, court staff, lawyers and defendants shuffle around the adopted courtroom trying to stay warm, out of the cold wind and looking for chairs to seat court staff and spectators. The defence lawyers from CAALAS are in Siberia – sitting outside the court at a card table taking their client’s instructions under a weak sun and a freezing south-easterly that swirls dust through the scattered groups of defendants huddled inside coats and under beanies while they wait their turn for a few minutes with their lawyers.

Court opens a few minutes after 10 am. Magistrate Little has a few words of introduction and welcome and congratulates the founders of the successful and locally-run Mount Theo petrol-sniffer rehabilitation program who recently received gongs in the Queen’s Birthday awards.

Mount Theo will soon expand their services into ganga and alcohol abuse prevention and rehabilitation and she expressed her appreciation of such locally-operated and controlled projects and the support it provides to the Court. Magistrate Little also welcomes the members of the Yuendumu Mediation and Justice Group to the Court, noting that this was the first time that they’ve been involved in Court sittings and that they’d met the day before to consider and make sentencing recommendations on most of the matters before the Court.

With the large list, the court sits until well after 5pm, with a couple of short tea breaks and a barbecue lunch provided by the local Police. A few defendants have been slotted and are headed for prison in Darwin or Alice Springs, fines have been handed down, DVO’s have been enforced or amended, prosecutors and defence counsel have negotiated pleas, charge withdrawals and adjournments and sentences and evidence have been translated.

Magistrate Little and her Court staff face a four hour drive home to Alice Springs and she is keen to get through the list – she gently but firmly encourages defence lawyers and prosecutors to resolve the last few outstanding matters.

The members of the Mediation and Justice Group are justifiably pleased with their day in Court. For the first time they’ve played a real part in the administration of European law and justice in their community. With the passage of time, greater experience, and the encouragement and support of their community and government agencies the group plans to expand their involvement in community dispute resolution and crime prevention – identifying and resolving problems before they escalate and end up with the police and the Court.

It’s still early days for the Yuendumu Mediation and Justice Group, Mount Theo and the changing circumstances of law and justice in central Australia. Magistrate Little will be moving back to Darwin 1500 kilometres away soon and won’t have more than an occasional part to play in this story in the future.

Hopefully the group and the Mount Theo program will receive the support they need to continue and develop their work and maybe politicians and some media will look at some of the positives in the administration of law and justice in central Australia rather than settling for a quick sound bite or a 48 point headline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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