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It's a RAP

News

Cite as: September 2012 86 (09) LIJ, p.28.

The LIV has taken an important step on the road to Indigenous equality.

The LIV will launch a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), joining a growing number of law firms to take this initiative to help achieve Indigenous equality.

The RAP is scheduled to be launched on 4 September by LIV president Michael Holcroft, who said the document was a small but significant step on the road to equality that represented the legal profession’s commitment to closing the gap between black and white Australia.

“I am extremely honoured to launch the LIV’s RAP,” Mr Holcroft said. “The RAP is intended to be a working document that represents our continued commitment to improve the lot of Indigenous Australians in ways that we can influence – cultural awareness, education, removing barriers to entry and respect.

“Lawyers are, and must be, leaders in the community. We have an obligation to promote human rights and equality before the law.

The LIV’s RAP has been in the making since 2009 driven by the RAP working group whose co-chairs were Abigail Burchill and Richard Wilson. “All of the LIV presidents that I have served under have been passionate believers in and supporters of this cause.

“During the course of our consultations, I have added to my understanding of how we can improve the relationship that we share with Indigenous Australia. The RAP acknowledges our intention to work together. It is a small but significant step on the road to equality.”

On 13 February 2008, former prime minister Kevin Rudd delivered a national apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and members of the Stolen Generations on the first sitting day of the new Parliament.

The apology recognised past wrongs and committed to focus national efforts on bridging the gap between Indigenous Australians and the broader community. It was also regarded as a fundamental first step in the reconciliation process.

Since then 310 RAPs have been established by organisations around Australia, including a substantial number of law firms, as reported in the LIJ’s July issue of 2011. In 2008, Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL) became the first Australian law firm to launch a RAP. Allens, Clayton Utz, DLA Piper, Maurice Blackburn, Lavan Legal, Gilbert + Tobin and the Law Council of Australia (LCA) followed suit.

The LIV’s reconciliation journey began in 2006 when a policy statement on Indigenous Australians in the legal profession and justice system was developed. It recognised that as the peak body for Victoria’s legal profession it had the opportunity to make real change in this area.

The LIV announced its intention to introduce a RAP in December 2010. It saw a RAP as a way to turn good intentions towards reconciliation into action by identifying initiatives, timelines and measurable targets for relationships, respect and opportunities.

It received wide support from the profession and, less than two years later, what is described as a “living document” is up and running. The first RAP will operate from 4 September 2012 to 3 September 2013, when the LIV must report to Reconciliation Australia (RA). The RAP will be revised and set for the next 12 months, and so on.

Former LIV president Danny Barlow championed LIV involvement in Indigenous issues during his 2009 LIV presidency and brought links to the Shepparton Koori community. “It’s fantastic to see it come to fruition,” he said.

“The overall goal of this RAP is to end up with a legal system that is properly represented by Aboriginal people in this state. At the moment, we don’t have that, not among solicitors, barristers or the judiciary. Until we have done that, I don’t think the job is done.”

The LIV’s RAP consultations with Indigenous people in Victoria – traditional owners, peak bodies, community groups, education bodies and government agencies – identified three distinct “reconciliation pathways” for the Victorian legal profession, or as one put it, “big ticket items”. They are education to qualification, access to justice and cultural awareness.

Using these pathways, a reconciliation framework was developed. This requires an increasing and ongoing involvement of Indigenous people and organisations in LIV RAP activities, committees and actions, at the same time ensuring that the LIV is working with, not for, Victoria’s Indigenous community.

In 2012-13, the LIV has committed to improving Indigenous access to justice through objectives focusing on community development, access to law and policy and law reform. The commitment also focuses on improving Indigenous participation in the law in universities, legal industry and community partnerships and employment; and increasing cultural awareness in the legal profession by focusing on education, professional development and consultation.

Aboriginal barrister and co-chair of the LIV RAP working group, Abigail Burchill, described the LIV’s RAP as “unique”.

“In terms of what it set out to do and what it has achieved, it is great. It represents equality of decision-making in terms of what is an issue and how we can achieve change. It turns good intentions into actions . . . it moves beyond a symbolic document,” said Ms Burchill, for whom the RAP is personally meaningful. Ms Burchill is one of only six Indigenous barristers at the Victorian Bar and one of only about 35 Indigenous lawyers in Australia.

“It’s very big. I came into it disillusioned. For the first time an Indigenous initiative moved way beyond symbolism. For the first time we had heads of agencies involved, people who could make a difference. They were offering sincere, real and significant changes. That was different to what I had been involved in before.”

Ms Burchill said the initiatives in the RAP were designed to be practical.

Many actions were internal to the LIV but most were initiatives that lawyers and law firms could incorporate into their own activities.

“The law has always had a profound impact on Aboriginal people. This is an opportunity to create training and employment opportunities within the legal sector but also delivery of legal services to Aboriginal people as well,” she said, adding the RAP itself could help law firms frame their own RAP.

Reconciliation Australia’s program director Sharona Torrens said peak bodies such as the LIV and the LCA were instrumental in encouraging other organisations and sectors to get on board.

“The LIV definitely influences law firms and others to develop their own RAP. It has such extensive relationships out in the community . . . we rely on them to get the reconciliation message out,” Ms Torrens said.

The legal fraternity, she said, had embraced reconciliation and law firms understood the business benefits of reconciliation initiatives.

“Law firms want to be seen as socially responsible but I think they understand the impact it has on their people. It makes staff want to stay with these firms.”

Mr Barlow added: “Some law firms already have RAPs, but anything we do as part of this that gets the attention of firms or organisations that might not have considered doing this will be a particular benefit.”

Several LIV staff members were instrumental in ensuring that the RAP come to fruition, including members of the Administrative Law and Human Rights, Elder and Succession Law Sections.

A COURT TO CALL THEIR OWN

Whitefella law administered in a culturally sensitive way to Indigenous offenders is reaping extraordinary results.

Recidivism has plummeted in the Latrobe Valley since the County Koori Court was set up in 2009 in a pilot program aimed at improving Indigenous justice outcomes.

Only one of the 31 offenders before the court in that period had reoffended, according to an evaluation report on the program. It was a low-level offence – being drunk in a public place – and happened 14 months after the completion of their community-based order. The offenders were particularly at risk given that about one-third had prior prison episodes and two-thirds had previously received community orders.

The results have prompted the state government to continue the program in the Latrobe Valley.

In an interview with the LIJ, the judge in charge of the County Koori Court, Judge John Smallwood, said he was “stunned” by the “astonishing” low reoffending results which he said were driven by the program’s approach of deterrence and rehabilitation.

Koori accused going through the court feel shame and responsibility for their behaviour. They also feel more motivated and supported to address offending behaviour.

“It’s the first time a lot of them are able to remember what was said in a courtroom. Normally they sit and stare at the floor as if it has nothing to do with them,” Judge Smallwood said.

“It’s the first time they have felt they are being treated as a person. They appreciate the elders making them feel as if they exist. They feel as if they should try to rehabilitate themselves out of respect for the elders. They don’t want to let the elders down. The cultural process of what they go through with the elders makes them want to change.”

While the Aboriginal elders were the driving force in the court, Judge Smallwood said they played no part in the actual sentence. Trained elders sit either side of a judge, around a table, rather than the formal setting of a traditional courtroom. The accused, flanked by lawyer and support person, is told the court has been “smoked” which means “fresh start”.

“If it’s a serious assault, the elders will put the photos of the bashed-up victim in front of the accused. They say, ‘Look at that. You feel proud of that do you? How could you do that to a woman?’ They induce a sense of shame,” Judge Smallwood said.

“There is a much greater sense of remorse. That’s a starting point for rehab. There is a need in them for help. It’s not a workshop. The balancing act is keeping the respect for the courtroom, which will punish, but allowing and promoting the cultural aspects that go straight to rehabilitation.”

Judge Smallwood said he wanted to see the court expanded to Mildura and Shepparton – “but we cannot do that without funding”. Meanwhile, the court will be operating in Melbourne one day a week by the end of the year.

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