The Aboriginal Legal Service was the first operation of its kind in Australia. It began in 1970 with volunteers providing free legal advice and representation to Aboriginal people in inner-Sydney from a shopfront in Redfern.
It is not one story, but many - told in the voices of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who worked together to achieve greater justice for our people.
The Story Project is an initiative of the ALS Board to celebrate 40 years of service to our community.
We thank the generosity of all those who shared their stories, passing them on to our younger generation and to the wider Australian community.
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The origins of the Aboriginal Legal Service lay in the response of Aboriginal people to police activities in and around Redfern at the close of the 1960’s.
In 1970, police were enforcing a curfew from 9:30pm onwards targeting Aboriginal people in inner Sydney. Aboriginal people walking the streets in Redfern, Newtown, Alexandria and Chippendale were subject to arbitrary detention and arrest by police.
On Thursday and Saturday nights when Aboriginal people congregated at the Clifton and the Empress Hotel, the police often blocked off the streets of Redfern with police bullwagons ahalf hour before closing time. They moved into the hotels and forced Aboriginal people out onto the streets. Police officers would then indiscriminately arrest Aboriginal individuals who then spent the night in the cells. Those Aboriginal people arrested were later charged under the Summary Offences Act 1970 with a basic trespass offence, punishable by a fine of up to $200, or three months imprisonment, and they were charged with drunkenness, offensive behaviour and offensive language.
Gary Foley with Colleen Shirley Smith (Mum Shirl) who helped set up the ALS in 1970. Photo courtesy of Tony Mott
There were many complaints of assaults in the cells. Aboriginal people were essentially at the mercy of the police and magistrates. While there was a limited scheme of ‘public defender’ legal assistance, there was no effective legal representation. Most people appeared unrepresented and simply pleaded guilty.
Against this background, a group of young Aboriginal people including Paul Coe and Gary Williams attempted to organise a vigilance group. Their aim was to photograph and witness incidents of police arrests with the intention of passing this factual information to the media and government agencies. They wanted to stop repressive police action. They also spoke to students at university campuses and to trade union groups about the problems Aboriginal people were experiencing.
A Professor of Law, now Supreme Court Judge Wootten was approached by law student Peter Tobin to attend meetings with this group of Aboriginal people to see what help and advice he could give. Justice Wootten enlisted the aid of a number of prominent lawyers to attempt to change State Government policy towards Aboriginal people, in particular, the police activities around the inner city area. They attended hotels on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights as observers to ascertain and establish the truthfulness of the claims being made by Aboriginal people, and whether their presence there would deter police from arresting large numbers of Aboriginal people arbitrarily. What they observed confirmed the degree of abuse and intimidation by the police.
At first there was a call to take on the police and ‘teach them a lesson’ in court. That gave way to a more constructive idea to establish a permanent source of legal advice and representation – an Aboriginal Legal Service that could tackle immediate abuses of power, and work to address systemic problems.
Aboriginal activists and lawyers set up the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern in 1970, staffed by volunteers. A number of young student-lawyers and practicing lawyers had offered to give their time and knowledge on a voluntary basis to arrange bail, interview Aboriginal people in the lock-up, and prepare the defence of Aboriginal people. The aim was to provide representation and reduce incarceration and police harassment of Aboriginal people. The service was Australia’s first free legal service, setting the model for mainstream community legal aid.
The Aboriginal Legal Service adopted a Constitution, elected a Council made up of a cross-section from the Aboriginal community, leading representatives of the legal profession, and experts in areas relevant to the work of the ALS, set up a Management Committee, and were staffed by volunteer lawyers and leaders from Aboriginal community.
The Aboriginal Legal Service initially didn’t apply for funding. They instead relied on volunteers, and they prided themselves on their autonomy. At the end of 1970, Mr Justice Wootten drafted a submission on behalf of this group to the then Office of Aboriginal Affairs for funds to set up a full time shop-front legal office. He was successful.
In early 1971 the Aboriginal Legal Service received a government grant of $24,500 for the salaries of a full time solicitor, a field officer and a secretary. The Aboriginal Legal Service was firmly established. They started a 24-hour answering service and in the first twelve months the Aboriginal Legal Service handled over 550 cases, mostly criminal matters. It was an historical act of self-determination. The Aboriginal Legal Service was the first community-controlled, shop-front, free legal-aid centre in Australia.
The Aboriginal Legal Service was formed into an unincorporated association as this was seen as the most flexible and sensible way to structure an organisation fully controlled by Aboriginal people. The founding principle was that the Aboriginal Legal Service was an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation designed to protect the rights of any Aboriginal person.
Sol Bellear, Foundation Chair of Aboriginal Legal Service. Photo courtesy of Sol Bellear
Aboriginal Legal Service was the first organisation to provide a practical day to day service; protect the rights of Aboriginal people in police stations and courts; respond and reflect the needs of the then Redfern community; and was open to any Aboriginal person to become a part of. The social and individual bravery of the Aboriginal men and women that lead to the successful establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service inspired other people. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people throughout Australia began their journeys in tackling community policing and legal problems.
Aboriginal Legal Service created a model for a new wave of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations in health, housing, child-care and other legal organisations around the country. These new Aboriginal organisations were designed to provide much needed services and – more broadly – to contribute to the development of pride, dignity and self-respect in the Aboriginal community and the expectation for necessary social and political change for Aboriginal people.
The involvement of Aboriginal people in both management and service delivery was critical to the acceptability of Aboriginal Legal Service to Aboriginal communities. The Aboriginal Legal Service deliberately planned and elected men and women who were leaders in their own communities to be field officers to ensure culturally appropriate service delivery. Staff were selected from local communities. Regional Aboriginal Legal Services were managed by local Aboriginal Boards. The Aboriginal Legal Service was establishing a track record of working with and for the Aboriginal community.
In 1972 the new Whitlam Labor Government pledged to fund representation for all Aboriginal people in all courts. The number of Aboriginal Legal Service criminal and civil cases increased, with civil cases being nearly half of the case load. The increase revealed the wide scope of legal problems faced by the Aboriginal community.
In 1973, the Aboriginal Legal Service voted into office its first full Aboriginal Council.
The Aboriginal Legal Service grew from one small shop-front in Redfern to cover the whole of the State with regional offices throughout NSW. By 1974 there was an Aboriginal Legal Service in every State and Territory throughout the country.
In 1975 the Aboriginal Legal Service became NSW Aboriginal Legal Service and Branch Offices were established in Nowra and Brewarrina. At the same time the Aboriginal Legal Service was experiencing resistance from Federal government. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs attempted to transfer responsibility for Aboriginal legal aid to the recently established Australian Legal Aid Office (ALAO). This was met with fierce opposition from newly formed Aboriginal Legal Services around the country.
ALS members Paul Coe, Cecil Patten and Hewitt Whyman meet Nelson Mandela on his visit to Australia. Photo courtesy of Hewitt Whyman
In 1976 the Fraser Liberal Government stopped paying for the cost of representation for Aboriginal people in Court. The Government also put funding restrictions on Aboriginal Legal Service activities, suggesting they were primarily a legal service provider and could not engage in secondary activities arising out of their operations such as ‘general welfare’. Government funding for Aboriginal Legal Service’s around the country shrunk dramatically.
In the late 1970s breakaway Legal Services formed in southern and Western NSW. Their successful operation depended largely on Aboriginal groups and individuals being represented in the management of the services.
In 1980 the Aboriginal Legal Service unique model of service delivery where lawyers work side by side with Field Officers was recognised in the ‘Ruddock Report’ - the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs Report on Aboriginal Legal Aid. The report also suggested it was a proper function of Aboriginal Legal Services to provide advice and assistance in welfare matters where those matters arose from related legal problems.
The 'Hunter Aboriginal Childrens Services' started from humble beginnings in 1984 as a sub-project to the Aboriginal Legal Service. A need was identified for an Aboriginal Service to accept responsibility for the fostering of Aboriginal children in the Hunter area with Aboriginal families. The service became an independently incorporated body governed by its own Management Committee and branched out to include Family Support to enhance the already successful but overloaded Substitute Care service. Up until 2013 the service operated an Out of Home Care Program and a Family Support Program.
During the 1980s NSW Aboriginal Legal Service grew to twenty Branch Offices in three regions. Government funding rose during this time but was comparatively a lot less than that provided to Legal Aid Commissions and Community Legal Centres.
Decreases in Government funding in the late 1980s meant NSW Aboriginal Legal Service had to restrict service delivery to Criminal matters.
In 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was handed down. It found that the fundamental causes for over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody were those factors which bring Aboriginal people into conflict with the criminal justice system in the first place. The report suggested that the most significant contributing factor was the disadvantaged and unequal position which Aboriginal people find themselves in society – socially, economically and culturally. It recommended that Aboriginal Legal Service providers extend beyond legal advice to investigation and research into law reform.
In 1996 NSW Aboriginal Legal Service was restructured to establish regional Legal Services mirroring the six ATSIC Regions. In the same year the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) had their funding cut by the then Howard Liberal Government by $400 million. As Aboriginal Legal Services around the country were funded by ATSIC, most were forced into cutting services.
In 1997, the Justice of the High Court of Australia, The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG delivered a speech saying: “When the Australian Constitution was written in the 1890s,… the law-making for the Aboriginal people (and the Torres Strait Islanders) was substantially reserved to the States. By our Constitution, Aboriginals did not even have to be counted in the national census. The power to make special laws for people of any race excluded laws for the Aboriginal people. It took a referendum in 1967 to expunge this affront from the Australian Constitution and to steer successive federal Parliaments and Governments into the provision of special laws for the indigenous people of this country. The settler societies which were established by the British in the four corners of the world are still in the process of adjusting their legal systems and societies to afford greater respect for, and protection of, the indigenous peoples who were substantially displaced.”
All the mob from Armidale ALS in 1999, which was then Kamilaroi
In 2003 annual government funding to Aboriginal Legal Service providers was cut to six monthly cycles. The following year the Howard Government abolished ATSIC and despite widespread opposition, introduced a tender process for the provision of Aboriginal Legal Services.
In 2006 the coalition of six Aboriginal Legal Services in NSW and ACT was amalgamated to respond to the tender process, thereby forming a single ALS for NSW and ACT called Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited. It was a brilliant opportunity for renewal and change. The amalgamation defined a new structure for the delivery of legal services to Aboriginal people in NSW and ACT.
As a company, the ALS (NSW/ACT) was owned by the Aboriginal communities it worked with in NSW and ACT. It strengthened it’s commitment to being an Aboriginal community controlled organisation by having a strong Aboriginal Board representing their communities to the ALS.
ALS Board in 2006
Organisational renewal strengthened excellence in advocacy, further developed unique cross-functional teams, streamlined service delivery to improve the experience for clients, redefined financial management, policy development and performance measurement, and created a new strategic plan with a clear mission and very distinct organisational values.
One ALS also strengthened and unified the voice of Aboriginal communities in NSW in ACT. The ALS had a stronger position from which to advocate to State and National Governments and other service providers for law reform, flexible funding arrangements, and best practice service delivery to Aboriginal people.
Unlike any other non-Aboriginal legal service provider, the ALS continued to recognise that Aboriginal people needed a legal service that met their needs through recognition of cultural differences, choices and expectations.
The ALS maintained its model of Aboriginal Field Officers working in partnership with ALS lawyers. The ALS continued to recognise that an Aboriginal client was best served with the assistance of a cultural interpreter. ALS Field Officers continued to provide the conduit between clients and non-Aboriginal lawyers, and the Aboriginal community. Their skills were felt both in and outside the courtroom with clients, families, communities, service providers and stakeholders.
ALS received one-off funding from the Australian Government for the Custody Notification Service (CNS) in 2007. Operating since 2000, the CNS has prevented Aboriginal deaths in police custody in NSW and ACT by providing Aboriginal men, women and children in police custody with access to early legal advice and a welfare check. The CNS is still funded through one-off grants despite the efforts of the ALS to attract ongoing funding for this essential service.
ALS Chief Legal Officer John McKenzie talking with Tom Calma, previously Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2007. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid NSW
In 2008 the recurrent funding of Aboriginal Legal Service providers around the country was frozen. For ALS this meant a real cut of 6% and their Family law services had to be cut. Criminal law services were also reduced.
In 2010 ALS received a funding boost from the Federal Government Budget.
Since 2011 ALS has concentrated on two areas of law: Criminal Law and Children’s Care and Protection matters. The ALS Criminal practice assists Aboriginal men, women and children who have been arrested, charged or have received a summons to go to Court. The Children’s Care and Protection Law Practice assists parents and families who have had their children removed by Government.
The ALS celebrated 40 years of service to the Aboriginal community.
In 2012 ALS partnered with Legal Aid NSW to assist in administering Work and Development Orders (WDOs), assisting people deal with unpaid fines. We also assist in Family and Civil law advice, again in partnership with Legal Aid NSW.
The ALS also ran a huge campaign to save the Custody Notification Service in 2013 after Federal Government funding was withdrawn and the NSW government refused to fund the service. The campaign was successful with funding provided by the Australian Government for two years. The ALS still plans to look for recurrent funding for the CNS.
The 2013 Federal budget provided an extra funding boost to ALS to assist in the start of a small Family Law practice to meet huge unmet need in the Aboriginal community. The ALS contract for the provision of legal services was also extended by the Australian government for one extra year, completing June 2015.
The ALS budget was cut by the Federal Government by 4.5%, due to take effect in 2015-16.
The ALS Prisoner Throughcare service was also defunded, effective 30 June 2014.
The ALS ran a huge campaign called #savetheALS to reverse massive government funding cuts to core frontline services, as announced in the Federal Government's May 2014 Budget Papers. That campaign was successful and in March 2015 Attorney General George Brandis announced a reversal of all funding cuts to the Legal Assistance Sector.
In May 2015 the peak body NATSILS also had their funding cuts reversed, and were promised five years of future funding through the Australian government Attorney-General's department.