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NSW Chief Justice: "stark and confronting reality" of over-incarceration must be tackled despite Voice defeat

Callan Morse -

New South Wales Chief Justice Andrew Bell has become the first sitting judge to speak publicly about Australia's rejection of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The proposal, which sought to enshrine an Indigenous Voice in Australia's constitution and establish a Voice advisory body, was overwhelmingly defeated last year, with more than 60 per cent of the nation voting 'No' at the October 14 referendum.

Speaking at the Law Society of NSW Opening of Law Term Dinner on Wednesday, Chief Justice Bell said the defeated Voice to Parliament should not "obscure the stark and confronting reality" of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in relation to the justice system.

"On the subject of Indigenous affairs, the defeat of last year's referendum cannot and must not be permitted to obscure the stark and confronting reality, captured in the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, that 'proportionally, (the Indigenous people of Australia) are the most incarcerated people on the planet,'" Chief Justice Bell said.

During his speech, Chief Justice Bell highlighted the over-representation of Indigenous youth in detention, calling on government and the judicial system to do more to assist Indigenous Australians.

"The Uluru Statement laments that 'our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers'. That language is strong, but it is not hyperbole," he said.

"The referendum's defeat means that more, not less, needs to be done to address levels of Indigenous incarceration, especially amongst Indigenous youth," he said.

He suggested justice initiatives such as specialist Aboriginal courts including NSW's Walama List court and the Youth Koori Courts were initiatives worthy of further expansion to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates.

"Aboriginal Elders, themselves invariably members of the Stolen Generation, play important roles in the Walama List in the District Court, and circle sentencing in the Local Court and the Youth Koori Courts, together with many non-indigenous practitioners, in seeking to achieve diversion towards critical support services directed to underlying offending behaviour, enhanced respect for the legal system, and rehabilitative justice, especially for young offenders," he said.

"It is my hope that, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the proclamation of the Third Charter of Justice, the Walama List Pilot in the District Court which has now been running for two years with notable success, is able to be placed on a more secure footing with the support of the government. This will be of advantage for the whole community."

Chief Justice Bell also used his speech to commend the decision to offer Indigenous students or young practitioners an opportunity to have a mini-internship with a NSW Supreme Court judge.

The proposal would see such opportunities be integrated into existing Indigenous internships offered by Legal Aid, the Public Defenders, the Department of Public Prosecutions and numerous leading private law firms.

"There are some outstanding indigenous lawyers in our profession but they are far too few, and a great burden is placed upon them," Chief Justice Bell said.

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