Indigenous legal needs: NT report
The Indigenous Legal Needs Report was launched today by Hon Minister John Elferink MLA, Attorney General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Corrective Services.
The report was written by a research team from James Cook University and the University of New South Wales. The report provides the most comprehensive survey of civil and family law needs for Aboriginal people ever undertaken in the Northern Territory.
The research, based on focus group interviews and discussion with 149 Aboriginal men and women in eight communities and interviews with over 60 service providers, shows that civil and family legal problems are widespread among Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. In most cases few people seek legal assistance.
The most common legal problems reported in the focus groups were housing (54.1%), neighbourhood problems (27%), racial discrimination (22.6%), accident and injury (22.3%), employment (19.6%) and credit and debt issues (18.4%.). Social security issues were also prevalent (29.1%) among those in receipt of Centrelink payments. Service providers also noted the importance of other areas of significant legal need including child protection and consumer law issues (which are often interwoven with credit and debt problems).
Housing, and in particular tenancy, emerged as the predominant legal issue in focus groups and during stakeholder interviews, with over 50% of focus group participants identifying housing issues. Repairs and maintenance were identified as the primary area of dispute or problem arising in tenancies. Only one in three Aboriginal people who identified an issue with housing sought legal advice or assistance.
Based on focus groups and stakeholder interviews, Discrimination is a priority legal issue in the NT. The Report found that nearly a quarter of all focus group participants identified having experienced racial discrimination. The authors found, “There is a level of acceptance in relation to discrimination, a lack of knowledge about rights, and difficulties in ‘naming’ an incident as discrimination. Because discrimination impacts on all areas of social life from health services, to housing, to employment, to education, and because there appears to be a large unmet legal need in this area, we regard it as a priority legal need.”
The Report authors stated, “We view Child Protection in particular as a priority area: legal needs in this area have serious consequences and there is an identified lack of legal assistance to parents. Orders are being made or consented to in the absence of legal advice to parents”. The authors stated, “There are experiences of disempowerment in dealing with child protection agencies which lead to a failure to understand or assert legal rights.”
Credit and debt, and consumer issues are an important area of legal need. Overall, 18.4% of focus group participants said that they had had legal action threatened against them in the last two years for failure to pay a bill or repay a loan. Unaffordable loans and difficulty in repaying loans were a major issue, ranging from bank loans to local examples of small shops using ‘book-up’. The type of consumer issues arising included matters like funeral funds, used car sales, photographic deals and other high-pressure sales. One interviewee told the researchers, “There are a lot of people being signed up for contracts for mobile [phones] that don’t have reception in remote communities [where they live].”
While the report documents widespread legal problems, there is clearly an issue with access to justice. In most cases, Aboriginal people who report problems do not seek advice or assistance. In areas of discrimination and social security between one in five and one in ten people who identified a problem sought assistance.
The report concludes that there is need for better-targeted community legal education on civil and family law and improvements to service delivery. Resourcing is one significant limitation on the ability to deliver services particularly to remote communities.
The Indigenous Legal Needs research was supported by the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Central Australian Aboriginal Family Law Unit (CAAFLU), and North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Service (NAAFVLS). The research was part-funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant: LP100200455.
Issued November 6, 2012
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