28 November 2014
The Hon. Senator George Brandis QC
By email and hard copy
Dear Attorney General
A few weeks ago I met with an Aboriginal Traditional Owner to speak with him about mining issues on his ‘Country’. He is a proud man who has contributed to his community over many years. He is a man with a clear and deep connection to ‘Country’ and he has a great concern about what is proposed for land development in the north of Australia. This man came to me because he wanted to understand his legal rights under the complex environmental legislation, which applies to mining in the Northern Territory.
I should add Senator Brandis, that he is a man of very few means.
Attorney General, in the absence of an Environmental Defenders Office in the Northern Territory what do you suggest this man does? You recently stated that “legal financial assistance should be directed to disadvantaged Australians who are most in need of legal assistance”. You also stated “it is vital that vulnerable Australians receive the help they need with their legal problems”. You will get no disagreement from me on either of those two points.
Attorney General this man has a legal problem and as an Aboriginal man is part of Australia’s most marginalised and disadvantaged group. You would agree, would you not, that this man, vulnerable in the face of complex laws which have a profound impact on his life, should receive legal assistance?
Fortunately, this man was able to seek the assistance of the Northern Territory Environmental Defenders Office. However, Attorney General around this time last year, 17 December 2013 to be precise, (just before Christmas) you announced funding cuts which may see the end of the only specialist public interest environmental law centre in the Territory. So it is legitimate to ask you, in the absence of an Environmental Defenders Office, where do you suggest this man should go?
Perhaps he should seek legal assistance from a group without specialist knowledge in environmental law? Sadly, they would be unlikely to have the resources or the expertise to be able to give advice to him on complex environmental laws. Additionally, it’s not really providing access to justice if the legal assistance given is not properly informed, is it? In the same way you see an appropriate doctor depending on your medical condition, you seek a lawyer with expertise in the area specific to your problem.
Perhaps he should go to a private legal practice and seek to engage them? I’m sure you are aware Attorney General that private practice lawyers are expensive. If they were not, there would be less need for community legal centres. But I already mentioned, this is a man of very few means.
Unfortunately, this man is also unlikely to be able to secure pro bono assistance in the Territory. Many large law firms with the relevant expertise are dependent on large developments for much of their business and their clients may feel uncomfortable with them giving assistance to someone seeking advice in direct conflict to their interests.
So, Attorney General I ask for a third and final time what do you suggest this man should do? If the Environmental Defenders Office in the Northern Territory ceases to exist, where should he go to receive the help he needs? The help, which you yourself consider to be a vital part of Australia’s justice system?
I await your response with interest.
Environmental Defenders Office (NT) Inc