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Key legal aid service vows to rebound as lawyer shortfall cripples NT

David Prestipino -

The Northern Territory's primary Indigenous legal aid service has vowed to rebound quickly after announcing a staff shortage would prevent it taking on new clients this year.

The drastic decision of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) follows the departure of several criminal lawyers from the agency's Alice Springs office since June, and could lead to some First Nations people having to represent themselves in court until December 31.

NAAJA acting principal legal officer Jared Sharp told National Indigenous Times he was extremely concerned the agency was unable to currently meet all its obligations and some of the town's most vulnerable residents might need to represent themselves.

"NAAJA will continue to fight for justice for all our current clients, and we hope that - with this short break until the end of the year - we'll be able to back and resuming our full services from the beginning of 2024," he said.

He said the NT Legal Aid Commission was also facing staffing challenges and did not have capacity to take on matters the NAAJA couldn't, with more resourcing required.

"There's no doubt more resources are needed at this critical time to enable [NT] Legal Aid to pick up the shortfall here, to make sure that creditably-vulnerable people are represented," he said.

"Resources just must be found, it has to happen... it's got to be the top priority."

Mr Sharp visited staff in Alice Springs this week, telling lawyers they would be given a day a week away from court to undertake other legal duties, such as court visits and research.

"There's no magic wand, the existing staff are there and really dedicated," he said.

"It's just making things more manageable for them... giving them that time during the week - if you're a junior lawyer do you have access to support and supervision from senior lawyers."

He said many lawyers who had left NAAJA were suffering exhaustion, often working more than 80 hours a week, including weekends, to meet professional obligations to clients and the court.

The exodus of experienced lawyers from NAAJA's Alice Springs office was not the only staffing challenge that has hampered the agency, with high-profile departures including acting CEO Olga Havnen and long-time chief executive Priscilla Atkins in late 2022.

The NT government this week announced a high-visible police operation over summer would combat crime in Alice Springs.

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