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Chan, Eng Bin; Stewart, Miranda --- "Circles in the Sand: Creating Pathways and Connections in Indigenous Legal Education" [2007] IndigLawB 13; (2007) 6(25) Indigenous Law Bulletin 16

Circles in the Sand: Creating Pathways and Connections in Indigenous Legal Education

by Eng Bin Chan and Miranda Stewart of Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria


The ancestors of the first inhabitants of this land fashioned kinship systems and family patterns which ensured the self-preservation of the people and their culture.[1] This understanding of kinship and family ways created and became a source of strength and unity. Using these powerful ideas as the basis and drawing upon them creatively, the Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria[2] (‘ILSLAV’) has established and designed a number of programs to create pathways and connections in Indigenous legal education. This paper examines some of the education programs devised and implemented by ILSLAV.

Planting Seeds: ILSLAV Community Programs

ILSLAV acknowledges the importance of community involvement and support for secondary school students and attends a number of community fairs and programs throughout Victoria. In this environment, Indigenous children from all over Victoria are given the opportunity to meet Indigenous university students and have their questions and concerns about university education addressed. A number of Department of Justice Community Job Fairs have been held in rural and metropolitan locations. ILSLAV members also attended CrocFestival in October 2005 in Swan Hill, Victoria, and, in conjunction with the University of Melbourne, promoted the study of law for Indigenous students. Importantly, the interaction with communities is not merely informational; the relationships fostered are part of a complex infrastructure that will sustain ILSLAV’s programs in the future.

Law Students and Law Schools

While the number of Indigenous law students is small, the number has grown in recent years. There were 362 Indigenous students enrolled in law at Australian universities in 2004, compared to 50 in 1990.[3] Unfortunately, graduation has not kept pace with enrolments as attrition rates are high in many law schools for Indigenous students.[4]

The possible factors limiting the number of Indigenous law students and graduates are not limited to the experience of law school, but include:

• low numbers of Indigenous students completing secondary school;

• low numbers of Indigenous people undertaking tertiary education; and

• lack of desire to study law at university.

Within the university environment, a common story of first year Indigenous law students is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the law school experience or being intimidated by other students. ILSLAV has established a pre-law program to ensure Indigenous law students receive a head start in their journeys towards successful legal careers. The pre-law program is not linked to any particular institution and consists of four carefully timed seminars aimed at skills development. ILSLAV believes that highly valuable relationships are forged between first year and later year students, between first year students of various universities, and between the Indigenous students and other people and communities. These relationships become the basis by which cultures are shared and further kinship systems are built.

Legal Career and Professional Pathways

Just as the web of relationships spin from rural communities to universities, these relationships reach into the legal profession. ILSLAV has established working relationships with key institutions of the legal profession in Victoria, including the judiciary, solicitors, barristers, and the Victorian Department of Justice.

There is a range of cadetships and professional development opportunities that have been established in Victoria. The Justice Department and Legal Aid provide articles programs for legal admission and cadetships. The Federal Court and Supreme Court of Victoria have established associate or clerkship positions for Indigenous law graduates. Law firms have begun to establish Indigenous cadetship schemes. The Victorian Bar has a mentoring program for Indigenous students, and has proposed to establish a scholarship to support an Indigenous lawyer in becoming a barrister. More such opportunities are needed.

Pathways, Communities, Kinships and Programs

What has been described in this article, when viewed in its entirety, is a complex yet organised set of relationships that is dynamic and evolving. There is neither a start nor an end to ILSLAV’s programs; rather, they all form part of each other in the circular relationships, communities and kinships forged and reinforced as the programs are run. The relationships feed the programs and are the pathways for Indigenous law students. The students know the power of relationships and respect and understand where they exist in this context as they progress in life and their careers. They will, based on that understanding, feed themselves and contribute back into the very programs that have made a mark in their lives. They will be an inspiration for future generations of Indigenous students who will strive to follow in their footsteps.

As ILSLAV continues to foster relationships and expand, we hope to meet with Indigenous students and lawyers in other states and support similar initiatives, with the aspiration of forming a unique national legal body. This objective, considered in light of the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (‘ATSIC’), along with the mainstreaming of Indigenous bodies, may prove critical if Indigenous voices are to be heard on legal issues. Further, as many of our members attend international Indigenous conferences around the world, it is hoped that one day ILSLAV can form part of an international legal coalition.

The progress towards the fulfillment of these goals forms part of the greater desire for all Indigenous peoples of the world to reclaim or strengthen their cultural identity and to self-determine their futures. It is with this cultural strengthening in mind that ILSLAV continually endeavours to design, promote and maintain programs which are reinforcing and self-empowering for the individuals involved.

This paper was prepared collectively by members of the Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria <> . Miranda Stewart is a Senior Lecturer and Indigenous Students Liaison Officer at the University of Melbourne Law School and an Associate Member of ILSLAV. Eng Bin (Robin) Chan is an Associate of the Supreme Court of Victoria and an Associate Member of ILSLAV. This article develops a presentation made by Hans Bokelund (ILSLAV) at the Indigenous Issues in Australian Universities: Teaching, Research, Support Conference, (Australian Catholic University, Brisbane, 16 June 2005).

[1] Mudrooroo, Us Mob: History, Cultures, Struggle: An Introduction to Indigenous Australia (1995) 21.

[2] ILSLAV is an incorporated association, the primary objective of which is to increase the graduation and participation rates of Indigenous law students within the legal profession. ILSLAV was generated out of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement – a partnership between the Victorian Government and the Koori community, <> at 28 February 2007.

[3] Richard Potok with the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University, A Report into the Professional Development Needs of Native Title Representative Body Lawyers Final Report 7 April 2005, (2005), <> at 28 February 2007.

[4] Heather Douglas observes that of 30 admissions at Griffith Law School, only eight were still enrolled at the end of four years, ‘Indigenous Legal Education: Towards Indigenisation’ [2005] IndigLawB 3; (2005) 6(8) Indigenous Law Bulletin 12, 12. While estimates are difficult to make, based on experience at Melbourne University Law School, Indigenous admissions are lower than at Griffith Law School (for example, one estimate is that 11 students enrolled in 2004 and eight enrolled in 2007) and graduations are considerably lower than enrolments (one or two graduating students each year). See also Heather Douglas, ‘The Participation of Indigenous Australians in Legal Education 1991-2000’ (2001) 24(2) University of New South Wales Law Journal.

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