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North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency on track for new clients "within weeks", rejects attacks

Dechlan Brennan -

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) says they are on track to take on new clients "within weeks" as the embattled organisation warded off criticism from media outlets, arguing many were "simply not true."

NAAJA said on Friday they were in the process of finalising specialist staffing arrangements before an anticipated March reopening of its Youth Court practice in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) which has been closed since November due to staffing shortages and an "unprecedented demand for legal services."

The organisation said they have initiated a plan to assist people in custody without legal representation by providing lawyers, alongside Territory Criminal Lawyers, for prisoners in Alice Springs Prison. Furthermore, NAAJA said they had procured lawyers on secondment from Victoria Legal Aid and the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

NAAJA's Principal Legal Officer Jared Sharp said recruitment was in an advanced stage which gave the board the confidence full-service delivery of legal services could commence shortly.

"As the only Territory-wide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led legal service, NAAJA simply must succeed," Mr Sharp said.

"That's why the board and management have been working overtime in recent weeks to address structural challenges and the concerns of our funders, so we are in a position to resume our full services from March.

"Importantly, throughout this challenging period, NAAJA has continued to provide criminal law services to our clients; our lawyers continue to appear in court for existing clients every day and continue to travel to Tennant Creek and all bush courts."

NAAJA has faced criticism in recent times over allegations of financial mismanagement. On Wednesday, shadow spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs and NT Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price told the Senate there was a need for an audit of the organisation to "understand where government money and resources can be better used".

In December, NT Police said investigations into NAAJA Chief Financial Officer, Madhur Evans, had concluded, with no adverse findings or further action warranted against her or the organisation.

The Australian reported people in Central Australia have had to represent themselves in court without NAAJA operating in the region and on Friday NAAJA's former acting chief executive Olga Havnen claimed the current board does not possess "high level skills" and needs to be removed.

"The board has struggled to deal effectively with strategic and risk challenges facing NAAJA," she told The Australian.

"There are no independent non-member directors, and I don't believe that directors have the requisite high-level skills, knowledge or expertise necessary for ensuring appropriate oversight of management and operations of a large complex organisation."

In a statement on Friday, NAAJA said they were disappointed to see claims against the organisation that were "simply not true".

"Last year, police conducted a thorough investigation into unfounded allegations against the chairperson and a senior staff member, resulting in no adverse findings and no further action," the statement said.

"Having cleared up those legal questions, NAAJA is single-mindedly focused on strengthening the Territory-wide Aboriginal legal service and is pleased to confirm we are well on track towards reopening youth services by March."

NAAJA said their lawyers supported more than 8000 Territorians as the demand for legal representation in Indigenous communities continued to rise.

"At the same time, we have been impacted by the same funding and staffing constraints that have hit the broader sector and forced Aboriginal Legal Services in several states to cut services," Mr Sharp said.

"The board is confident that the necessary steps are now being taken to build capacity and ensure we can continue to provide high-quality and culturally appropriate services to the community long into the future."

The organisation receives $83m over a five-year period from the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), however the Attorney-General's department announced earlier this week it has altered arrangements for the NAAJA, in turn allowing the Territory government to redirect funding to other organisations.

A spokesperson for the Department said they were concerned about the "current service reductions in Alice Springs" and in the short-term believed it to be critical to take necessary actions to restore services in the area.

"Given the urgency of this situation, the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments have taken the step to amend the Northern Territory's NLAP bilateral schedule as an interim measure," the spokesperson said.

"This measure is designed to maintain the essential legal assistance services for First Nations peoples, including criminal law services, while the ongoing issues at NAAJA are resolved."

The arrangement will continue until July 1 and allows the NT government to re-direct Commonwealth baseline funding under to another legal service provider for front line legal services to Aboriginal Territorians.

It is understood any re-direction of funds away from NAAJA by the NT government must be done with notice and NAAJA will have the opportunity to make submissions as to why this shouldn't be occur.

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