Law of community: the impact of Youth Koori Court

Posted 14th April 2019

Lawyer, James Clifford on the impact of Youth Koori Court.

I volunteered at the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in Redfern when I was a law student, and I saw the work lawyers were doing and all the kind of crazy stuff that the clients were up against. From this, I knew I wanted to learn the tools that offer more to communities so when I was asked to take a job with Youth Koori Court I said “absolutely”.

Youth Koori Court goes further than most in looking at people as people and taking into account all the things in their life that they are up against, instead of just dropping the proverbial hammer of the law on them. I think this is a good principle to be extended to all courts.

The Youth Koori Court works because it is different compared to most judicial procedures, because it is a community based system.

A magistrate sits at a table with Indigenous Elders and respected persons, and all other participants involved – it’s a discussion on the same level. It’s much more personal and the young person is encouraged to advocate for themselves. So they sit next to me - the lawyer, and next to their family, and that’s the case.

Youth Koori Court is an initiative of the NSW Children’s Court aimed at understanding and helping divert young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth from prison by tackling the causes of the crime.

There is a greater degree of empathy that is shown towards the young people and what they’re up against. I think the kindness comes from extending respect to the young person and saying “you’re not making these decisions because you’re a bad person”.

The issues facing these young people don’t always go away when they leave the court, it’s not a stop all. Intergenerational trauma affects most of these kids and it’s not something that is going to be resolved through six-months of the legal process. But I think you see the kids get a community developed around them, and the Elders and respected persons are a big part of this. You feel like the kids find people they can turn to.

I always invite the kids to interrupt me if they disagree, or want to add something during proceedings. I think that by giving them a voice in the courtroom, they advocate for themselves, and over time builds a trust. Often the kids are quite shy when beginning but soon you see they become comfortable, and understand more about what is happening with their matters and understand what their rights are. I think the young people who’ve attended Youth Koori Court become more empowered, and can really speak up for themselves.

I remember when a young participant who had been attending Youth Koori Court for a while became comfortable in explaining who she is and what had happened. Then she attended a regular court and began speaking alongside the lawyer during proceedings – it was great to see her build that confidence.

I think Youth Koori Court is important but the court is only as good as the people in it.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander case workers are really committed to the kids, and that’s where the court really flourishes. It’s court solutions but also community solutions.

That’s really the take away from Youth Koori Court.

James Clifford

Lawyer with Youth Koori Court

Banner image source: triple j Hack.

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