A pioneering project to help Aboriginal people navigate bush courts has uncovered ways to improve communication and potentially cut avoidable Indigenous incarceration in the Northern Territory.
ARDS Aboriginal Corporation and the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s pilot project in a North-East Arnhem Land community found that in-depth legal education in Yolngu language could address what local residents described as widespread confusion about the court process.
“There is an overwhelming over-representation of Aboriginal people in the mainstream justice system,” NAAJA chief executive officer Priscilla Atkins said.
“There are many factors that influence this reality, one of which is the lack of understanding of foreign legal concepts and individuals’ obligations in the legal system.”
Believed to be the first project of its kind, NAAJA and ARDS community legal educators attended two bush courts at Ramingining earlier this year.
Educators provided information to court attendees before and after their appearances.
Working in Yolngu language, the educators found many court attendees do not understand the meaning of basic legal concepts, resulting in people unknowingly breaching court orders or missing court.
Ramingining elder and ARDS director Matthew Dhulumburrk said Yolngu are frequently going to jail because “there is some basic information that no-one has ever explained to them”.
“For example, many Yolngu think that ‘bail’ means ‘bailed out’ – in other words, ‘free to go’. They don’t know there are certain conditions they have to follow,” he said.
“Also, a lot of people don’t know the difference between saying ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.
“People who go to court in Ramingining and the families who are involved want to really understand what the law means.
“They want to take more control of their situation and understand what is required of them.
“All the time people are being told by Balanda the ‘what’ but not the ‘why’ about law, and for the ‘why’ to have any meaning it needs to be grounded in a cultural perspective – the Yolngu perspective of Balanda law,” he said. “The ‘why’ needs to be explained Yolngu way.”
“To develop ways of communicating complicated information that will work, we need to engage carefully with community members in their own language and find ways of talking that make sense to them,” ARDS CEO Jo Ward said.
The project also identified simple changes to bush court processes that would keep more people out of prison.
“Sometimes people’s names are not pronounced correctly, so they don’t know it’s their turn to go inside for their court matter,” Ms Ward said.
“If they don’t go inside, the judge issues a warrant for their arrest.”
In another case, people travelling by boat from Yurrwi Island missed their court appointments due to the tides and received warrants.
“The courts need to improve their level of cultural competency and be aware of the reality of life in Aboriginal communities,” Ms Ward said.
The project, which was funded by the NT Law Society’s Public Purposes Trust, suggests there is an urgent need in remote communities for access to culturally meaningful education about legal and court processes in Aboriginal languages.
“Programs like this can build foundational knowledge to support the work of lawyers and interpreters who have very limited time to talk to people about individual cases,” Ms Atkins said.
“Some simple changes, and more education, can improve access to justice, and make a big impact on our overstressed court and prison systems.”
One Ramingining resident engaged through the program, who wished to remain anonymous, echoed this sentiment.
“This was the first time that someone has explained the system to me like this,” the resident said.
“It is really important that other people learn this too.
“What if people are illiterate? What if people can’t speak English? People don’t understand this process. I feel very emotional in my heart for those young people in court.”