Indigenous lawyers must be initiated into the law of their own people if they are to be seen as true lawyers by Aboriginal elders, according to a prominent Indigenous political leader.
Speaking at the sixth National Indigenous Legal Conference (NILC) held in Sydney over the weekend, the Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM said that Indigenous lawyers qualified under the English common law were seen as "juniors" in the eyes of their elders.
"We have been victims of being inside someone else's yard. We have grown up in that yard and we have been educated in that yard ... Some are educated, some are not. Some are backwards, some have achieved something. And a number of you have now become lawyers, magistrates," he said.
"But you are all lawyers of the Westminster system of law. You have never qualified to be a lawyer or magistrate of the traditional law. But I am, because I was initiated as a lawyer, initiated as a magistrate, and that is one of the things that you are missing. Aboriginal lawyers, you are missing out on your own law."
A Yolngu law man and political leader of the Dhurili Clan Nation in north eastern Arnhem Land, Gondarra challenged Indigenous lawyers to look beyond "white man's law".
"I challenge you, because I'm a lawyer in my own right," he said. "Learn your own law and you'll be qualified as a lawyer in the eyes of the Aboriginal elders. Until you do that, you are a junior. You can be taught about the Westminster system of law ... and qualify as a lawyer. But I tell you now, brothers and sisters, you are just a junior, just starting in this education ... in Aboriginal traditional law."
Gondarra was the first speaker in the first session of the two-day conference which saw Indigenous lawyers and law students from around the country descend on Sydney to discuss issues such as Indigenous governance, Indigenous identity, tips for academic success and transition to work, and tips for effective engagement with Indigenous clients.
The first topic to be discussed was the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007, and Gondarra spoke of how the laws brought into Arnhem Land as a result of the Intervention conflict with Indigenous laws.
"All the first Australian peoples have a common foundation of law. This common foundation of law still exists even where some of these peoples may have lost many elements of their particular law," he said. "It does not matter how hard others try to deny and suppress this fact, we still have a common foundation of law that has been practiced in this land since the beginning of human history."
Gondarra said that although the Yolngu people have assented to their own law, they have never assented to the law of the Federation of Australia, or 'Balanda Law'.
"Some of us know that this new Australian law does try to protect and nurture us, but we still find it very strange, unfamiliar and very confusing - and it continues to offend us by opposing, harming and destroying us and our rights established under the original law of this land," he said.
"Let's hope one day that things will change and we will be respected as a real sovereign people. Then other Australians will sit down and talk to us about some real solutions to the problems we face. This would begin a new era of hope and prosperity where a true rule of law existed, offering law and justice on an equal footing to all the people of this land."
The conference also celebrated the announcement of this year's Indigenous Legal Professional of the Year, which was awarded to Nigel Browne, a lawyer with the Department of Justice and treasurer of the Law Society of the Northern Territory.
"Through his breadth of legal experience and his hard work on a number of Indigenous representative organisations, Mr Browne demonstrates his continuing dedication and commitment to championing the rights of Indigenous people," said Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland at the awards ceremony.
April Long, a student at the University of New South Wales, was named the inaugural Indigenous Law Student of the Year.
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