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NAAJA reopens youth legal practice in Mparntwe, begins taking on new clients

Dechlan Brennan -

Australia's largest Aboriginal legal service has confirmed it's resumed taking on new clients in Central Australia, after a period of difficulty and instability resulted in politicians to call for its disbandment.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said it had reopened its youth legal practice in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) to full-service last week, after a "concerted and ongoing" recruitment drive.

On Thursday, NAAJA said they had procured nine additional lawyers in their Mparntwe criminal law team, offering much-needed services to Indigenous people in the region.

Several organisations nationwide, including Legal Aid, O'Brien Solicitors, Ward Keller, and the Australian Government Solicitor's Office, have provided lawyers to NAAJA on secondment.

NAAJA's Principal Legal Officer, Jared Sharp, said the organisation was pleased to confirm that its "workforce action plan is progressing well and recent hirings have allowed us to resume youth intake in March as we said we would".

"As the main provider of legal services to Aboriginal Territorians, NAAJA provided legal services to more than 8000 clients across a vast geographic area, including very remote locations, during the last financial year," he said.

"Full credit goes to our hard-working and dedicated lawyers, client service officers, and administrative staff who have continued to provide high-level, culturally appropriate services to Aboriginal Territorians who come into contact with the justice system."

The reopening comes in the midst of a difficult time for NAAJA, who have been the target of significant criticism in recent months after being forced to stop accepting new clients at the end of last year.

Some of these attacks have come from opposition spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who has argued NAAJA is no longer fit to handle the large intake of Indigenous clients.

Senator Price's criticism came as part of broader calls for auditing of Indigenous spending across Australia from conservative politicians, despite the Australian National Audit Office completing multiple reviews of Indigenous agencies and/or policies each year in the past decades; 22 of which were completed under Coalition governments from 2013 to 2022.

Further criticism came in The Australian, which reported Indigenous people in Central Australia were having to represent themselves in court due to a lack of NAAJA lawyers, and from the organisation's former acting chief executive Olga Havnen, who said the current board needs to be removed, arguing they do not possess "high level skills".

Nonetheless, claims of criminal conduct by chief financial officer, Madhur Evans were concluded in December without charges being laid.

NAAJA previously told National Indigenous Times many of the criticisms against the organisation were "simply not true", and have pointed to a significant increase in the number of people in the region requiring legal representation, as well as a struggle for specialised legal providers across the country to provide full services due to adequate funding and staff numbers.

NAAJA receives $83m over a five-year period from the National Legal Assistance Partnership (NLAP), however the Attorney-General's department said last month it had altered arrangements, in turn allowing the Territory government to redirect funding to other organisations until NAAJA could once again offer full legal services.

It is understood the full resumption of adult services will likely be in April.

"The work we do is challenging and exciting and it's critically essential in ensuring access to justice for Aboriginal people in the NT," Mr Sharp said.

"We are confident that the work that is underway will ensure NAAJA can continue to provide high-quality and culturally appropriate legal services across the Territory well in the future."

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