Legal aid ‘back on track’

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Letter to the Editor

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) is on track to resume its full youth legal practice by taking on new clients within weeks as it boosts its Central Australian workforce, anticipating a March reopening of its Youth Court practice in Alice Springs, which it was forced to temporarily suspend in late November 2023 amid a shortage of staff and unprecedented demand for legal services.

NAAJA has also instigated a new plan to assist people currently in custody without any legal representation. Along with Territory Criminal Lawyers, NAAJA will provide lawyers for unrepresented defendants in Alice Springs Prison.

The organisation has meanwhile entered agreements with several leading legal firms to provide short-term lawyers as well as partnerships with Victoria Legal Aid and the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to recruit lawyers on secondment.

NAAJA simply must succeed. That’s why the board and management have been working overtime in recent weeks to address structural challenges and the concerns of our funders, so we are in a position to resume our full services from March.

Importantly, throughout this challenging period, NAAJA has continued to provide criminal law services to our clients; our lawyers continue to appear in court for existing clients every day and continue to travel to Tennant Creek and all bush courts.

Last year, our lawyers supported more than 8000 Territorians amid overwhelming demand for our services as a result of heavy policing leading to increased numbers of Aboriginal people in detention straining resources.

At the same time, we have been impacted by the same funding and staffing constraints that have hit the broader sector and forced Aboriginal Legal Services in several states to cut services.

Despite facing this perfect storm, the board is confident that the necessary steps are now being taken to build capacity and ensure we can continue to provide high-quality and culturally appropriate services to the community long into the future.

Under NAAJA’s Service Delivery Action Plan, the resumption of taking on new youth cases will be closely followed by adult matters, starting with clients who are in custody.

[We call] on the NT Government to switch the focus of its criminal justice policies away from incarceration towards alternatives, such as community courts, law and justice groups, and bail support programs to reduce the extreme numbers of prisoners on remand.

The latest Closing the Gap report card shows that the NT is going backwards, with the number of children in youth detention increasing while nationwide it is going down. Locking people up in jail is expensive and it doesn’t make communities safer.

NAAJA is calling on the NT Government to urgently repeal laws that contribute to the mass incarceration of Aboriginal people; and to consider smarter options like diversion for adults and more diversion options for young people, on-country programs, holistic family and domestic violence programs, and better bail laws.

NAAJA Principal Legal Officer Jared Sharp

1 COMMENT

  1. I am far more inclined to believe and be persuaded by the recent article in The Australian of Feb 9, by John Lawrence, titled “Indigenous justice at the mercy of a collapsing system”.
    It is clear that the existing board and management could not identify a crisis if it landed on their big toe!
    As Lawrence points out in a sad but eloquent manner: “The NAAJA is now no longer a functioning legal practice. It appears to be effectively finished.
    “Its recent failed attempts with several replacement chief executives merely reveal that the ship is sinking … The priorities of management and the NAAJA board were evidenced in a lamentable way by the recent Federal Court case heard here in Darwin in October.
    “This case gave the entire Australian community a window into the character and calibre of those board members and the organisation’s management … The whole case involved allegations and counter allegations of fraud, forgery, credit card deceptions, car leases (including Range Rovers) and more.”
    The board and senior management need to be replaced and rapidly. Why should tax payers and Indigenous people have to tolerate such behaviours?
    Such people are obviously blind to the needs of Indigenous people. It’s all about assisting themselves!

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