Charles Darwin University is encouraging more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into studying law in the Northern Territory.
CDU’s Asia Pacific College of Business and Law offers its Indigenous Pre-Law Program in January-February each year, run in close collaboration with the Bilata Legal Pathways Program.
During the program, the students find out more about studying law, gain foundational legal study skills and meet inspirational First Nations lawyers and leaders.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lawyers make up just two per cent of lawyers out of 533 practitioners in the Territory.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up roughly 30 per cent of the population in the NT and are significantly over-represented across the justice system.
CDU student Jared O'Neill's journey into university has been a long but inspiring one.
Mr O’Neill is a proud Arrernte and Kaytetye man from Darwin. His grandmother is a child of the Stolen Generation who grew up in Alice Springs before being taken to Melville Island and later moved to Darwin where the family settled.
Despite not receiving the marks he was hoping for in his final year of high school, Jared persevered, enrolling in CDU’s Tertiary Enabling Program (TEP) until he was eligible for university.
“I just kept pushing forward with it despite the obstacles,” Mr O’Neill said.
His interest in law started in high school and he credits watching his older brother’s journey into university as a way that he discovered the process himself.
In 2017, he was awarded a four-year Bachelor of Laws Scholarship from The Department of the Attorney-General and Justice designed to support an Indigenous student in the Territory.
While Jared initially had some setbacks in his studies, he recently received a Distinction in all his grades, and has just six units left before he completes his degree. He is expected to graduate in Semester 2 this year.
“The scholarship has been a real opener for me being able to go on placements and having great exposure – it has been the best decision I’ve ever made, it has opened doors and been a real stepping stone,” he said.
“My story shows that you have to just keep persevering, if you have a passion in something go after it.”
He wants other young Aboriginal kids to know that a career in law is possible and achievable if they’re given knowledge of how to go about it.
“It can be very intimidating for young Indigenous kids attempting to go into university, but they really just need the support and the how to of the right pathways,” he said.
“There are systemic issues why Indigenous people may not want to get into law, they feel intimidated like they may not be smart enough or good enough to get into law, or they may have families that have been in contact with the criminal justice sector.”
He plans on staying and working as a lawyer in Darwin and has a keen interest in commercial litigation and medical negligence. Through his studies and the scholarship, he has also completed placements and internships interstate with legal firm Allen’s and Pinsent Masons in Melbourne.
As a part of these internships he had the opportunity to work with legal firms on attracting more Indigenous lawyers from the Territory into interstate firms.
He credits the scholarship as well as the support he received from his family, peers at university, his mentors, The Clontarf Foundation, and the Bilata Legal Pathways Program for his success.
“Seeing other Indigenous success stories in the Territory motivated me to what is possible, and I hope that my story encourages others that they can do it too.”
Charles Darwin University Indigenous Pre-Law Enabling Program Coordinator, Dr Guzyal Hill, said the program is growing with close to 100 First Nations students predicted to be studying law in 2022.
“The program has gone from strength-to-strength, created more opportunities for students and as a result we’re likely to see more First Nations lawyers in the NT in the future,” Dr Hill said.
Dr Guzyal said CDU law students have a wide range of areas where they may choose to work - commercial or criminal law, human rights, protection of cultural heritage and intellectual property, environmental law, land rights - as advocates, law reformers, policy developers or litigators.
“The culture, sense of justice and even academic and life setbacks can serve as a really good compass for working in legal profession and further development of law,” Dr Guzyal said.
“Jared’s success is a testament to his determination and focus to succeed – he’s already making plans for his future career in law when he graduates later this year.”
Department of the Attorney-General and Justice Director, Legal Services Coordination, Robyn Miller-Smith said the scholarship was supporting access for Aboriginal students into the legal profession.
“We recognise that good outcomes for Aboriginal Territorians will come through working in partnerships with local organisations and the higher education sector to encourage more Aboriginal students into the legal profession,” she said.
“This is a real success story – we are absolutely thrilled with how Jared is progressing, and we will continue to mentor and support him as he progresses through his studies.”