How the Legal System is Often Culturally Insensitive

This is an edited extract from an interview of Munya by the Sydney Criminal Lawyers

The full articles is at

Practising Whitefella Law: An Interview With Bardi Barrister Munya Andrews

People love Munya’s engaging facilitation and presentation style. “Aunty Munya is a legend” is often quoted on our evaluation forms.

What many don’t know in the Evolve community is that Munya is also a barrister.

Munya began practising law back in 1997 and was called to the Victorian Bar in 2008. Practising in both criminal and civil law, she is the most senior First Nations barrister in that state.

Munya has also worked as a legal academic at a number of Australian universities, where she had a focus on legal issues within the Australian legal system that impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So, as she’s also well-versed in the traditional laws, customs and practices of her own people, Munya is quite well placed to discern how the Australian legal system is engaging with the First Peoples of this continent.

Imposing Justice

The relationship between First Nations communities and the Australian legal system imposed upon them has been fraught with difficulties. A foreign system of law underpinned by the legal fiction of terra nullius was hardly going to be just.

However, the High Court dispelled the founding myth of Empire back in 1992 with its Mabo versus the Queen ruling. And it’s close to half a century since Lloyd McDermott became the nation’s first Aboriginal barrister, when he was called to the NSW Bar in 1972.

Yet, despite these developments, the justice system in this country persists in detaining First Nations people to such an extent that they’re the most incarcerated people on the planet. And the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody continue.

A Multicultural Ambassador

In a further bid to make the Australian justice system more accessible to First Nations peoples, Munya is a cultural diversity advocate for the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity. This advisory body has developed a framework to access justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

And it’s through her work as both a purveyor of the law and a promoter of greater cultural awareness that Munya seeks to bring the two worlds she lives and works within closer together.

Here are some of Munya’s responses to questions on being a law woman – in both worlds.

The relationship between the Australian justice system and the local Indigenous people is problematic. As a Bardi elder from the Kimberley region, how have you found working within this system?

Regardless of whether or not advances are made in the Australian legal system for Indigenous peoples, it’s important nonetheless to be engaged because it impacts on my people. You can’t create positive change if you elect to disengage.

It is a difficult system to work within and to try to effect positive change, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying. Opting out is not going to help Indigenous people in this country, so I have no choice but to engage.

One of the greatest difficulties is that there is a legal industry in which whitefellas profit at the expense of our mob. It’s a multimillion-dollar industry in which our people don’t benefit in any way.

I find it hard to get work as an Aboriginal criminal law barrister. It’s crazy that all this money is being spent on Royal Commissions and other legal work, yet I can’t get work.

There’s something wrong with the system and people need to ask why. It’s a crying shame.

You’ve also taught law at both the University of Melbourne and Southern Cross University, with a focus on issues faced by First Nations peoples within the justice system. What are some of the issues that you’ve focused on?

In the courses I have taught, I’ve taken a broader look at the ways in which gudia law – whitefella law – has impacted on Indigenous peoples from Native Title through to Criminal Law: the high incarceration rates and the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, through to the ongoing removal of Aboriginal children within the child welfare system.

There are the cultural issues that remain, such as communication issues that arise in court – things like the lack of Aboriginal interpreters, not just for traditional languages, but for Aboriginal English.

The same lack of cultural understanding out there in the mainstream community is still at play in Australian courts.

Thankfully, the Australian judiciary have taken it upon themselves to be better informed through cultural awareness training and the like, but there is still a long way to go.

You’re also a cultural diversity advocate for the Judicial Council on Cultural Diversity, which assists courts in dealing with people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Absolutely. The Australian judiciary must reflect the make-up of Australian society – that means it must have a judiciary made up of a diverse group of Australians.

I question whether the Australian government is serious about achieving that goal.

To wit, I applied for a NSW magistrate position a couple of years ago and did not even receive so little as a letter of acknowledgement of my application let alone a letter informing me of the outcome. The silence was deafening.

It leaves our Australian society bereft where the status quo remains the same. In doing so, they miss out on the treasures that cultural diversity has to offer. It’s a sad indictment.

 What do you teach in your cultural awareness training programs that could improve the justice system?

At Evolve Communities we teach the worth and value of Indigenous culture in Australian society and the gifts we can offer humanity, including wicked solutions to current issues. Foremost among that is the diversity that exists within Aboriginal Australia – that one size doesn’t fit all. We impress upon participants that Aboriginal people are the experts when it comes to multiculturalism – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years yet rarely are we called upon to share our wisdom and insight. We look at the different ways in which Aboriginal people communicate, especially when using Aboriginal English and the myriad examples where things get lost in translation that results in miscommunication. This is especially relevant to the justice system, particularly regarding taking instructions and dealing with evidence. Other things include looking at the role of privilege and how this contributes to Indigenous disadvantage and the particular profile of an Aboriginal defendant to take into account in sentencing.

(c) Evolve Communities, 2020

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