This article was written by and reflects the views of Ryan Barritt, who shares his experience interning with Native Title Services Victoria. Ryan is a student at Deakin Law School.
The extent of my knowledge on Indigenous land rights and legal services has expanded greatly since undertaking an internship between late May and early July 2015 at Native Title Services Victoria (NTSV) as part of the Aurora Internship Program.
I had a basic theoretical and academic understanding of the jurisprudence of native title and of Indigenous land rights before I started this internship. So much has changed since Whitlam poured into Lingiari's hands some sand taken from Wave Hill Station in a symbolic gesture of the seminal return of land to its Traditional Owners, the Gurindji people, in 1975.
The first of many Federal, State and Territory conferrals of land rights back to their Indigenous custodians, it was not until the introduction of native title in Mabo and its codification in the Native Title Act that Indigenous people finally had access to an independent mechanism to assess and grant rights and interests in Australian land back to their custodial forbears.
However, the rigorous threshold requirements necessary to prove a continuous connection to land under the Native Title Act can prove at best problematic in a state like Victoria where a good deal of land has been occupied or utilised from settlement onwards, its original inhabitants forcibly removed and their cultural identities suppressed.
The introduction of the Traditional Owners Settlement Act in Victoria in 2010 helped this, by giving Traditional Owners in Victoria the freedom to negotiate with the Victorian Government for settlement packages of land rights akin to native title.
I feel extremely grateful having had the opportunity to broaden my understanding of this area of law through knowledge grounded in practical experience. Getting an idea of what it would be like to work in this area has given me a sense of direction in my career aspirations and a belief in my ability to pursue and achieve those aspirations.
I am extremely appreciative of the opportunities I was given to work within a team that provides, amongst other things, services essential for the development and implementation of land rights for Indigenous claimant groups in Victoria.
It was great to develop an understanding of the work that NTSV does in representing Indigenous claimant groups to secure, maintain and administer land right claims, and build corporate governance capacity for Indigenous claimant groups and associated organisations.
My role primarily involved legal research into different areas of the law I was delegated to look into, summarise and provide memorandums of advice on to the legal team that requested it.
The variety of the law that I examined I found surprising as much of the work was commercial in nature. The research I did included looking into Trusts, Contracts and Corporate law. I examined Project Consent Deeds, which are ‘future act’ agreements with companies who wanted to commercially use land over which native title rights exist or may exist in the future.
I also conducted research into Privacy and Freedom of Information law. I found particularly interesting some research I did into the concept of Indigenous sovereignty and what it means within the context of our current legal system.
This was a difficult question to formulate an easy answer to, an example of the challenging nature of work in a Native Title Representative Body. Questions were often more readily available than answers and, in finding answers you will often find more questions. Unexpectedly, I found this was one of the most rewarding aspects. Finding those answers often required problem solving, lateral thinking and initiative. It provided a sense of accomplishment when something finally clicked on the page or in your brain.
One of the pieces of work I completed during my time at NTSV, which I can honestly say that I am proud of at the end of my internship, was a report I did on community engagement for a claimant group. It took a lot of work to compile and analyse the data for patterns and to work it into a coherent document with substantiated points.
Without question, my favourite aspect of the internship was getting to meet members of a claimant group on country on several occasions, first at a meeting and again at a ceremony. It was a privilege to hear them enthusiastically speak and live their culture in stories, song, dance and language. I was most moved by listening to individual members speak on what the land rights process meant to them. This alone was enough to solidify in me a strong desire to pursue or at least seriously entertain a career in native title.
‘Team’ is a word that describes perfectly the atmosphere that the staff create at NTSV. Every member of staff I met played a part in making me feel comfortable and valued in the workplace.
I went into the internship nervous, interested and unsure in my ability to perform many legal tasks. Six short weeks later I came out a much more resilient, capable and productive worker, eager to graduate and take what I have learnt from my experience with NTSV and apply it in the real world.
Anybody with a passion for Indigenous affairs or social justice, or even a vague curiosity in what it might be like to work in this area of law, I recommend to go to the Aurora website and do some reading. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!