With a passion for helping Stolen Generations survivors and a deep desire to continue working with Indigenous communities, it’s no wonder Merinda Dutton is the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s National Indigenous Legal Professional of the Year.
Although Ms Dutton has worked tirelessly with Indigenous communities since joining NSW Legal Aid in 2014, she said it felt “pretty surprising” to her to receive the award.
“It’s just such a huge award to receive, I just wasn’t expecting it at all,” Ms Dutton said.
Ms Dutton was given the award at this year’s National Indigenous Legal Conference, a conference held in Darwin from 13-14 August.
“It was just a really surreal experience for me and it’s not often that you get to be recognised in such a public way, so that was nice,” Ms Dutton said.
“It was just a real honour, particularly given the calibre of previous recipients of the award and some of those are people who I really deeply admire and have been mentors to me.”
Some of those Ms Dutton admires includes the award’s first recipient in 2010, Tony McAvoy SC.
“He was also the first Aboriginal silk [Senior Counsel]. He’s somebody I look up to,” Ms Dutton said.
Ms Dutton said she looks up to Terri Janke, too, who works in the area of Indigenous intellectual property.
“She’s awesome, she’s a powerhouse,” Ms Dutton said.
A proud Gumbaynggirr Barkindji woman, Ms Dutton’s family history is what drew her to studying law.
“One of the biggest things that led me to the law was my dad’s story as a Stolen Generations survivor,” Ms Dutton said.
“I became really interested in that when I was in high school when I was studying Legal Studies in terms of the policies of the government of the time that had enabled the Stolen Generations to happen.”
“That really sparked my interest in social justice issues more generally, and that propelled me into law.”
While this personal connection might make the job more difficult for some, Ms Dutton said it fills her with compassion.
“I have a lot of empathy for [survivors’] situations and what that means for them and their family,” Ms Dutton said.
It “required a lot of hard work and dedication” from Ms Dutton to complete her studies at university as well as complete her practicing certificate at Legal Aid in Lismore, NSW.
“[It] was a big achievement for me,” Ms Dutton said.
Now, she co-leads the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities at Legal Aid.
For Ms Dutton, some aspects of the Australian legal system “can be a hard pill to swallow.”
“I think when the law creates unfair outcomes for Aboriginal people … that’s when it’s most challenging,” Ms Dutton said.
Despite this, Ms Dutton has no doubts that her clients are the most rewarding part of her career.
“I work with a lot of Aboriginal communities and I think the clients are the things that really motivate me and make the job worthwhile,” Ms Dutton said.
“There’s so much resilience and strength in Aboriginal communities and it’s really my honour to be able to work with them and be able to deliver legal services in Aboriginal communities.”
A distinctive moment of Ms Dutton’s career includes having the opportunity to represent an Indigenous woman at the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
“I think it was very meaningful, and it was meaningful for me to … enable that client to tell her story particularly given that some of the issues her story highlighted, highlight more systemic issues across the country,” Ms Dutton said.
“She was an Aboriginal woman from Arnhem Land … she speaks Yolngu Matha, and I think it was important to have a lawyer who understood her personal context.”
As for her next steps, the 29-year-old said she has no official long-term goals, but she wants to continue her work with Stolen Generations survivors.
“The biggest thing that is motivating me at the moment is working with Stolen Generations survivors in … applications for the Reparations Scheme.”
“I think whatever I end up doing I will always be working with and for Aboriginal communities, whatever that looks like,” Ms Dutton said.
“It’s something that’s close to my heart, to be able to advocate on behalf of Stolen Generations survivors to try and get reparations for them which they should be entitled to is really important to me.”
By Hannah Cross