Arma Legal Managing Director Hema Hariharan has been recognised in the 2021 Doyle’s Guide of leading Australian Native Title Lawyers in Traditional Owner representation.

Hariharan heads the independent law firm owned by Ambooriny Burru Foundation Charitable Trust, which represents eight Native Title claim groups in the Kimberley: Bardi Jawi, Karajarri, Ngurrara, Nyikina Mangala, Tjurabalan, Jaru, Yi-martuwarra Ngurrara and Koongie-Elvire.

Arma Legal is a subsidiary of non-profit and purpose-driven KRED Enterprises, trustee of Ambooriny Burru Foundation.

Hariharan, although working predominantly in Broome, is a non-Aboriginal woman born and raised in Sydney.

“I have an Indian background, my parents migrated here in the early 1980s, I grew up out in western Sydney,” she said.

Her passion for law began from a young age, prompted by watching both Matlock and SBS World News with her mother and father. She recalls the first time she encountered the concept of Native Title.

“I have a very vivid memory, I was watching the news and the Mabo Decision had come down. At that time I was still in school,” she said.

“I remember them saying that ‘Terra Nullius’ was no longer, but only a week before in history class I had learned the term.”

Hariharan later attained a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Business from Western Sydney University. Throughout her studies she worked at Nielsen, a large market research firm and upon graduating she moved into the company’s legal department.

“I knew the clients and the culture, but I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long term,” she said.

Not long after, she began her career in Native Title with a position at NSW Native Title, now NTSCORP.

Since then, she has worked with the Kimberley Land Council and again with NTSCORP leading a Strategic Development Unit.

With connections to the Kimberley, it wasn’t long before Hariharan found her way back to work in the west. She became the Managing Director of Arma Legal under the leadership of former KLC CEO Wayne Bergmann.

“We are a lot more than Native Title and that’s what I love about Arma.”

“We do corporation structuring, we do mining agreement stuff, helping with corporate governance — all those things that help you put into practice your Native Title rights.”

Hariharan notes there is no better feeling than seeing a positive end result.

“There are massive gaps in the law and people fall through the gaps all the time, especially in Aboriginal affairs in every sector not just Native Title — family law, criminal law,” she said.

“That stuff is disheartening. But you can do something to help identify those gaps, bring it to people’s attention and make … a positive change.”

The result, she admits, doesn’t come without a fight at times.

“Native Title law was created to provide some form of justice, and it is always hard to see people who will go out of their way to pay thousands of dollars to by-pass a process of engagement,” she said.

“They’d rather take it up in court than talk to people on the ground. Where is the corporate social responsibility of the companies that are doing that?”

In a world of black and white, Hariharan notes it’s the shades of grey that are the most important.

“It is about interpretation, right? How we use that legislation, the interpretation and precedence. How you use certain aspects to the advantage of a client,” she said.

“If the Native Title Act won’t help us what about the Environmental Protection Act or the Heritage Act?”

Hariharan describes Arma Legal as one of a kind and said it was the team that got her listed on the 2021 Doyle’s Guide.

“Arma is owned by a Charitable Trust, any money we make goes back to them. We are a firm led by a Board of Aboriginal Elders from the Kimberley, that’s what I love about Arma Legal — it isn’t just another law firm,” she said.

“I’m really happy with where I am … I want to build this practice more. I think that there are so many people that could benefit from the creative thinking that the practice prides itself on.

“We are not government funded at all, we are independent, and we are making a difference.”

By Rachael Knowles