VICTORIAN ATTORNEY-General Rob Hulls has urged the legal profession to do more to boost the number of Indigenous law graduates and legal practitioners in its ranks.
Speaking at the National Indigenous Legal Conference held in Melbourne at the RACV Club on 12 and 13 September, Hulls officially opened proceedings by outlining the State Government’s strategy for promoting Koori participation in the legal sector and the government.
Federal government was represented by the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus, who described the criminal and sentencing issues facing Indigenous communities as the “greatest national challenge facing this generation”.
The issue of criminal sentencing was also high on the Victorian Attorney-General’s agenda. “The first task is to halt the steady rise in Indigenous incarceration, the second is to promote Indigenous leadership in the law,” Hulls said.
“These are two sides of the same cyclical coin, and they both demand the nurturing of communities and their role models to keep all their members on a positive track.”
Hulls outlined a dual strategy of government and education initiatives, including 28 tertiary scholarships for Indigenous law students and an ongoing public sector recruitment campaign. According to Hulls, the Department of Justice is now the biggest employer of Indigenous Victorians.
Despite this success, Hulls admitted that unequal representation of Indigenous people in the legal profession would continue to hinder Indigenous judicial appointments, and he urged the private legal sector to do more to redress the imbalance.
“Indigenous judicial appointments will continue to be few and far between while the pool of candidates remains so small,” Hulls said. “In fact, we owe it to the law to harness the talent out there of individuals in Indigenous communities.”
Prior to Hull’s turn at the lectern, community elder Jim Burg gave conference attendees a personal insight into the Indigenous experience of law. He related a memory of his father, who was incarcerated and died in prison, becoming part of what Burg termed the “Forgotten Generation”.
“Indigenous people operate under a law that has governed our people for 40,000 years — and we were expected in just over 200 years to adapt to a new society,” Burg told the audience.
“One has to reflect on the past, because without it there is no present and no future,” he said.
Other speakers at the conference included High Court Judge Michael Kirby, VCAT President Justice Kevin Bell and Supreme Court of Northern Territory Justice Geoffrey Eames.
Native title, the Stolen Generation, and the Northern Territory intervention and sentencing among Indigenous communities were included as the topics on the agenda.
HREOC Commissioner Tom Calma chaired a session on “Criminal and sentencing issues amongst Indigenous communities”, and there were sessions with Indigenous legal practitioners, including barristers Hans Bokelund and Brendan Loizou.
Conference chair Brian Bero said that the conference was the only event to specifically address a broad range of legal issues that related to Indigenous people.
“We anticipate that conference participants will take away with them a better knowledge and understanding of the Indigenous legal issues that confront this country,” Bero said.
The conference was attended by more than 300 lawyers, law students, judges, Indigenous community workers, community elders, academics and representatives from government and community organisations.