Charles Darwin University
enews home

New project to help Indigenous speakers understand law

By Patrick Nelson

Dr Samantha Disbray … “alarmingly high incarceration rate” Dr Samantha Disbray … “alarmingly high incarceration rate”

A Charles Darwin University researcher in Central Australia has begun work on a project to help Indigenous people better understand Australian law.

Linguist Dr Samantha Disbray, from CDU’s Northern Institute, said the “Language and the Law Project” would help Aboriginal speakers of three distinct Central Australian languages understand legal words and their implications.

“The legal system is fertile ground for controversy about words and their meanings and who understands what in the context of criminal trials and other legal interactions,” Dr Disbray said.

“For example, in Aboriginal varieties of English the word ‘guilty’ can be an expression of remorse, or it can indicate legally established culpability. And the word ‘to kill’ can mean committing a violent act that results in a death, but is also a synonym for  ‘hit’ or ‘beat’.”

Dr Disbray said the research project would inform the legal profession and justice system about “what could be done” to resolve some of the misunderstandings relating to the language and the law.

“I have already visited Tennant Creek to identify ‘communication issues’ specific to speakers of the Warumungu language and the related and widely used new language Wumpurrarni English.

“Two other language specialists will undertake similar work in relation to the Alyawarra and Pitjantjatjara languages.

“We are looking to provide practical solutions to the day-to-day problems experienced by interpreters and people in the criminal justice system.”

Dr Disbray said the project had the potential to improve social equity in the Northern Territory.

“If we can improve the interaction between Aboriginal people and the justice and legal systems we might be able to reduce the alarmingly high incarceration rate in the Territory.”

Other members of the research team are CDU Professorial Research Fellow Professor Rolf Gerritsen, lawyer and former police officer Tom Svikert, education researcher and Pitjantjatjara speaker Sam Osborne, and linguist, court interpreter and Alyawarra speaker David Moore.

The project is funded by a $28,000 grant from the Law Society Public Purposes Trust.