Indigenous Law Bulletin
By Seranie Gamble
Some alternative courts for the sentencing of Indigenous adults have been established throughout Australia. Initiatives include Circle Sentencing in New South Wales (‘NSW’); Koori Courts in Victoria; the Murri Court in Queensland; the Nunga Court in South Australia (‘SA’), and the Ngambra Circle Sentencing Court in Australian Capital Territory (‘ACT’).
The Crime Prevention Division of the NSW Attorney General’s Department manages Circle Sentencing in NSW and directly involves local Aboriginal people in the process of sentencing Aboriginal offenders pleading guilty or found guilty of an offence. It aims to make the offender’s experience more meaningful, and improve community confidence in the criminal justice system, by taking the sentencing process out of its traditional imposing court setting and into the community. The Magistrate sits in a circle with community members, the offender, and can involve victims of offences and the family of the offender. Members of the Circle discuss the offence with the offender and develop an appropriate sentence. The Circle has the full sentencing powers of a court.
The Ngambra Circle Sentencing Court commenced a trial in the ACT in May 2004 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who have been charged with and pleaded guilty to an offence that may be heard in the Magistrates Court by way of application or referral. This procedure involves an assessment of the offender’s acceptability for Circle Sentencing and must have the consent of the offender. The Magistrate, offender, prosecutor, four members of a Community Panel and the Circle Sentencing Court Coordinator participate in the Circle. A member of the offender’s family, or a support person, any legal representative of the offender, victims and their support person may also attend. All persons in attendance are provided with an opportunity to be heard about the offending behaviour, with the seating of participants to be arranged in a circle. The participants recommend sentences as they see fit by way of consensus.
The Koori Court in Victoria operates as a division of the Magistrates’ Court to provide an informal atmosphere and allow greater participation by the Koori community in the court process. The Magistrate sits at table with all other participants and accepts the contribution of a Koori Elder or respected person, the Aboriginal Justice Worker, and defendants and their families. The Magistrate retains all sentencing alternatives and maintains the ultimate decision-making power in the Court. The primary goal of the court is to create sentencing orders that are more culturally appropriate to Aboriginal offenders and in doing so reduce the rate of re-offending.
The Brisbane Murri Court is a Queensland Magistrates’ Court for sentencing Indigenous offenders. Where an Indigenous offender pleads guilty to an offence, they are sent to the Murri Court for sentencing. A Magistrate presides over the Court and is advised by Indigenous Elders or respected persons on cultural issues and can ask for a case plan to be devised for the offender by Corrective Services, through consultation with an Elder, the offender’s family and the local community. The Magistrate makes the final decisions and imposes sentencing, with Elders present to advise the Court and to help facilitate communication between all parties. The Murri Court is held once every week at Magistrates’ Courts.
Similarly in SA, the Nunga Court takes place once a week in Port Adelaide and has been operating since June 1999.The Magistrate sits off the bench alongside an Aboriginal Justice Officer or senior Aboriginal person who advises on cultural and community matters. The offender sits with their lawyer and may have a relative with them also. The Nunga Court enables the offender, the family and community members, or victim if present, to have a chance to speak to the magistrate, aiming to make the courts less culturally alienating to Aboriginal people.
Seranie Gamble is in her final year of studying for a Bachelor of Social Science/Law at the University of NSW and is currently a Social Justice Intern at the Indigenous Law Centre.
 NSW Lawlink Crime Prevention Division Projects, <http://www.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lawlink> at 4 November 2005.
 Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court and Tribunals Practice Direction, Final Interim Practice Direction, Ngambra Circle Sentencing Court, <http://www.courts.act.gov.au/magistrates/Practice> at 4 November 2005.
 Magistrates Court of Victoria – Specialist Court Jurisdictions, Koori Court, <http://www.magistratescourt.vic.gov.au> at 4 November 2005.
 Department of Justice and Attorney-General, Queensland Courts, The Murri Court, <http://www.justice.qld.gov.au> at 4 November 2005.
 Courts Administration Authority of South Australia, Magistrates Court Aboriginal Court Days, <http://www.courts.sa.gov.au/courts.magistrates/aboriginal_court_days.html> at 4 November 2005.