Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Colleen Welch
Aboriginal Court Day has been operating in the Port Adelaide Magistrates Court in South Australia since June 1999. The local community has named it the Nunga Court. The Nunga Court is designed to deal with Aboriginal offenders in a culturally sensitive way. The court hears matters where the offender is pleading guilty and encourages support persons to attend the court.
Nunga Court deals only with Aboriginal people who plead guilty to an offence. The Magistrate sits off the bench, more at eye-level with the offender. An Aboriginal Justice Officer or a senior Aboriginal person sits beside the Magistrate to advise on cultural and community matters. The offender sits at the bar table with his/her lawyer and may have a relative sitting with him/her.
The relaxed informal atmosphere is the hallmark of Nunga Courts. Family and community members are encouraged to attend. Once the prosecutor and the defence counsel have had their say, the offender, the family and community members, or the victim (if present) have a chance to speak to the Magistrate. The Magistrate may ask them questions to help him/her in the sentencing process.
Aboriginal Justice Officers (‘AJOs’) and an Aboriginal Sheriffs Officer work in the court. They can help the offender, his/her family and members of the Aboriginal community if they have queries about the court process or outcomes. For example, they can assist with questions about the payment of fines or conditions of bonds.
Aboriginal Court Day began as an idea of Magistrate Chris Vass, an active member of the Judicial Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Programme and Manager of the Northern Court Circuits, which include the Anunga Pitjantjatjara lands.
Mr Vass discussed the idea with other magistrates and Aboriginal groups, State government agencies, the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, police prosecutors, lawyers and Aboriginal people. An Aboriginal Court Day was seen as a better way to serve the needs of the community and to make courts less culturally alienating to Aboriginal people.
The AJOs and the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement often get inquiries from clients, or people asking on their behalf, about having charges dealt with in the Nunga Court. Often the person making the inquiry assumes they can transfer from any Court to the Nunga Court at Port Adelaide.
In fact, the Nunga Court at Port Adelaide has strict guidelines in relation to the charges it can deal with. They are as follows:
1 The charges must be of a type that can be finalised by a Magistrate;
2 The client must be pleading guilty to the charges;
3 The charges must arise within the area covered by the Port Adelaide Magistrates Court;
4 Charges can only be transferred from other courts to the Nunga Court at Port Adelaide if the client already has some other matters before that court for plea.
At Port Adelaide, the attendance rate for Aboriginal people to the Nunga Court has been around 80 per cent. The attendance rate for Aboriginal people in other courts tends to be below 50 per cent.
Reports from the Aboriginal community suggest that because Aboriginal defendants and their supporters are now able to speak directly to the Magistrate they feel they have a voice in court.
The State Courts Administration Authority is committed to extending the Aboriginal Court Day model to other areas where Aboriginal people are strongly represented. An Aboriginal Court Day began at Murray Bridge on 7 March 2002 and another Aboriginal Court Day at Port Augusta in July 2001.
The first AJO position was established in December 1999 at the Port Adelaide Magistrates Court as part of a new fines payment initiative in South Australia and also to assist Aboriginal people to understand and comply with non-custodial sentencing options.
Responsibilities of the AJO include educating the Aboriginal community about the operation of the court, the criminal justice system and the fines payment unit. AJOs are required to:
The AJOs service the metropolitan regions, country regions and remote areas. In addition to the Magistrates Court they also service the diversional courts including the Drug Court, Domestic Violence Court and Mental Impairment Court.
The increased ‘ownership of service delivery’ by Aboriginal people is leading to improved compliance by Aboriginal clients. Aboriginal clients are more likely to express their concerns and issues to another Aboriginal person rather than a non-Aboriginal person, especially where an AJO is a part of the judiciary system. The AJOs provide an understanding and awareness of local issues, social structures, culture and traditions to judiciary members which has led to a more effective delivery of court services to Aboriginal people. AJOs also conduct appropriate assessments of Aboriginal clients’ ability to pay fines, which has led to a dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal people and their families finalising their outstanding fines. More Aboriginal clients are attending courts without fear due to the presence of an AJO. There has been a reduction in negative stereotyping by the courts of the Aboriginal community with regards to unpaid fines due to the preferred use of Alternative Penalties. These Alternative Penalties include:
It is now recognised that monetary penalties are to be used as a last resort for those living in remote areas. The majority of these defendants are in the lowest income bracket and receive Centrelink payments. Furthermore, there are often no facilities for these defendants to make payments.
There were originally three AJOs working within the courts. There are now seven. The Courts Administration Authority is committed to expanding the AJO programme in areas of need including regional areas.