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Lawyers assist Indigenous artists craft a lasting legacy

Lawyers assist Indigenous artists craft a lasting legacy

The Arts Law Centre of Australia has been assisting Indigenous artists with the drafting of wills, ensuring a portion of future earnings can remain within families and local communities. Justin…

The Arts Law Centre of Australia has been assisting Indigenous artists with the drafting of wills, ensuring a portion of future earnings can remain within families and local communities. Justin Whealing talks to the Centre's senior solicitor, Delwyn Everard, about why it is important for lawyers to get out of the city to visit Indigenous communities.

Arts Law Centre of Australia's Executive Director, Robyn Ayres, left, and senior solicitor Delwyn Everard, alongside the 'rabbit proof fence' in Central Australia.
Delwyn Everard says she doesn't quite know how it all came about, but she is glad it did.

The senior solicitor at the Arts Law Centre of Australia is used to assisting artists with intellectual property and royalties issues, but not matters concerning life and death.

"Some time ago we were being asked for assistance to deal with the rights of Indigenous artists that had passed away," she says.

"Often these artists, particularly in the Top End, might have sold all of their work while living within their community, so they might not own any real estate, but find out they have a quite durable assets in that the National Gallery might display their works or they might be featured in catalogues or coffee table books.

"Often these works will keep being sold after they pass away and there is potential for that 10 per cent resale royalty when it changes hands in the future to come back to the family."

In assisting Indigenous artists have more control over the proceeds from their intellectual property, it was discovered that the vast majority of Indigenous artists the Centre came into contact with did not have a formal will drawn up.

So Delwyn and her team decided to do something about it.

"Very few Indigenous people have wills," Everard says. "Lots of Indigenous families that live in remote communities don't have birth certificates. They have a clear understanding of their families, but don't have those records. Even though wills and estates isn't something we would normally be doing, that is how we got into this."

Going bush

Everard and the Centre started to organise tours of remote Aboriginal communities and Indigenous arts centres to meet local people face to face.

"We are dealing with artists in remote and regional areas," says Everard. "English might not be their first language and they don't have access to the internet, so it is no good sitting in our ivory tower in Sydney. We need to go out there."

The Arts Law Centre's Indigenous liaison officer Kyas Sheriff, right, with Indigenous artist Graeme Badari at Oenpeli in September 2008.

Photograph by DELWYN EVERARD

Like lawyers of all stripes, this personal contact with the clients of the Centre meant they were able to tailor the wills to take into account the lifestyle of local Aboriginal people and the fact that many of the Indigenous communities they visited were not familiar with the formal laws and level of bureaucracy that is required in creating a legally binding will.

"We developed a very simple will that is designed to deal with the sorts of assets more commonly held by visual artists working in Indigenous Arts Centres," says Everard. "We started visiting communities and explaining to them the benefits [of having a will].

"It makes things so much simpler and creates a streamlined process to flow back through to their families."

From 11 to 18 September, Everard will visit Alice Springs and then travel 530 kilometres west to the remote community of Kintore, accompanied by Gadens senior associate Jodie Wauchope, an Aboriginal information officer from the Arts Law Centre and a lawyer from the Copyright Agency Limited.

Gadens pro bono coordinator Bran Black says his firm's interest in the arts and existing links with the Arts Law Centre was the catalyst for it to participate in the program.

Wills workshops at Papulunkutja Arts, West Gibson Desert in October 2010.

Photograph by SEAN KING

The firm has committed to providing lawyers for an additional two trips, with lawyers at Gadens invited to apply for each separate tour. An internal selection committee including Black and the firm's Sydney chief executive, Ian Dardis, then chooses a candidate to go on the trip.

"Jodie was chosen because she has extensive experience in remote Indigenous communities," says Black.

Earlier this year, senior partner Campbell Hudson visited Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Black says this was to ascertain how the firm could make a more practical contribution with its pro bono work in Indigenous communities, and the participation of Wauchope and the firm in trips with the Arts Law Centre is a key part of that initiative.

While the firm is not a signatory to the National Pro Bono Resource Centre Aspirational Target of 35 hours of pro bono work per lawyer per year, Black says Gadens is looking to increase its links with existing pro bono partners such as the Arts Law Centre and the Inner City Legal Centre in Kings Cross.

"The aim of our current pro bono program is that every lawyer who wants the opportunity to do pro bono work can do so," he says. "We would certainly look to be a signatory of the Aspirational Target down the track."

Following the trip to the Northern Territory this month, the Arts Law Centre plans to visit remote communities in the Kimberley region in Western Australia in November.

Lawyers from Minter Ellison and DLA Phillips Fox (now DLA Piper) have previously assisted on similar trips, with hundreds of Indigenous artists being able to formulate a will.

"It is a wonderful thing to do and an amazing experience," she says. "Hopefully, at some point, there will be enough knowledge and wisdom in the communities we visit, so it doesn't always happen [the drafting of wills] when the Arts Law Centre is in the community."

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