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Kristiansen, Kari M S --- "Nation Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum" [2001] IndigLawB 43; (2001) 5(8) Indigenous Law Bulletin 30

National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum

By Kari M S Kristiansen

The National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum is a legal studies training programme for Indigenous people, developed in response to Recommendation 212 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner was given responsibility for the implementation of Recommendation 212, which states:

‘The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and State Equal Opportunity Commissions should be encouraged to consult with appropriate Aboriginal organisations and Aboriginal Legal Services with a view to developing strategies to encourage and enable Aboriginal people to utilise anti-discrimination mechanisms more effectively, particularly in the area of indirect discrimination and representative actions.’

The need for training of Indigenous field officers had long been identified by various Aboriginal Legal Services. There were several earlier initiatives to provide such training, including the programme developed in 1982 by Redfern Legal Service in conjunction with the University of New South Wales. However, at the time of the proposal there was no nationally accredited legal studies training course for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Recommendation 212 provided an opportunity to develop a uniform national legal studies training initiative within the Vocational Education and Training framework, which would also provide a pathway to further tertiary studies at a university level. A national Curriculum Development Advisory Committee was formed to facilitate the development of a training curriculum that was relevant to the needs of Indigenous people in diverse settings throughout Australia. At the outset, there was a process of consultation with various Aboriginal Legal Services, government departments and other relevant stakeholders.

The outcome was the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum. The curriculum comprises a sequence of three courses – Certificate III, Certificate IV and Diploma – which may be delivered over four semesters of full-time study. The stated aims of the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum are:

(i) to formalise the role of Field Officers through recognition of existing Field Officer skills and knowledge and to provide potential Field Officers with the skills and knowledge to operate effectively and appropriately in the Australian legal system while being able to maintain and promote Indigenous peoples’ beliefs and culture;
(ii) to increase the level of legal education and training available to Indigenous peoples;
(iii) to increase the access that clientele of Indigenous legal services have to information and resources in relation to their human and legal rights;
(iv) to provide professional training in the areas of federal and state law, including anti-discrimination law (rights, responsibilities and mechanisms available for protection);
(v) to provide a career path for Field Officers;
(vi) to enable Indigenous peoples to explore avenues for the recognition of customary law and customary dispute resolution mechanisms by the Australian legal system.[1]

Tranby Aboriginal College (‘Tranby’) has offered the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum since 1997. Tranby is an alternative and independent learning environment for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. The College has been operating since 1958. The Tranby environment is a family/community atmosphere with informal, hands-on approaches to learning. Tranby tries to create a space where things can be done in Aboriginal ways and yet still meet accreditation requirements.

Modules/subjects for Certificate III, Certificate IV and Diploma topics are delivered over two years in a block release program of six blocks per year. Recognition is given to knowledge and experience already acquired. Topics are worked through both off-campus and at Tranby, with the support of course facilitators, mentors and tutors. The course is hands-on, practical and directly related to the needs of the course participants and their communities, giving participants a working knowledge of areas such as criminal law, customary law, the court system, arrest and bail, the prison system, human rights and the Royal Commission recommendations, native title, family law and international law relevant to Indigenous communities. It also includes skills such as dealing with conflict, conducting negotiations, writing technical/legal documents, interviewing clients and computer skills for working in a field office.

The course is characterised by the use of various assessment methods such as simulated bail applications and small group activities. Other features of the course include low staff turnover amongst the facilitators and a strong commitment to the principles of distance learning, which emphasise regular contact and feedback. In 2001 the course participants in the second-year intake undertook a field visit to the Kalgoorlie/Goldfields region to observe the operation of customary law practices, native title dispute resolution and a range of community-based law reform strategies. In 2000 30 course participants made a formal submission to the United Nations on the issue of mandatory sentencing.

Over the years that Tranby has offered the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum, it has maintained consistently high enrolment and retention levels. For example, in 2001 there were over 90 applicants for the course, with 30 people commencing the course. Since 1997 over 130 Indigenous people have undertaken studies in the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum course at Tranby. Course participants have been drawn from a large number of government agencies, at both federal and state levels, community organisations and Indigenous communities throughout Australia, including Aboriginal Legal Services in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales.

In 1999 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and Tranby Aboriginal College signed a Memorandum of Understanding concerning the delivery of the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum by Intending Training Providers throughout Australia. In accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding, it is necessary for an Intending Training Provider to apply to Tranby for formal approval to obtain a copy of the syllabus and formally deliver the course under licence. Tranby then makes a recommendation against specific criteria to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in relation to the application.

The National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum provides an opportunity for Indigenous people to study law in a curriculum framework developed to reflect their values, needs and cultural perspectives. The curriculum also establishes links for Indigenous people to progress to university studies in law, with the benefit of sound preparation, and in some instances, advance standing.

As a strategic response to Recommendation 212, the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum serves as a striking example of a practical and enduring outcome of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Kari M S Kristiansen is the National Indigenous Legal Studies Curriculum Course Coordinator at Tranby Aboriginal College, Sydney.

[1] Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, National Indigenous Legal Studies Syllabus, 1997.

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