A legal staffing crisis in Alice Springs is seeing Indigenous Australians forced to represent themselves in court

It’s Wednesday morning and a stark blue TV screen inside an Alice Springs court is filled with a list of names. Donella Clarke looks and shakes her head.

“I’ll have my work cut out for me today,” she said.

“Got a couple today [who are] self-representing, so see how that goes.”

The Luritja/Pintupi interpreter has been working for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS) in Alice Springs courts for almost 10 years. She understands seven Aboriginal languages, speaks two, and officially interprets Luritja/Pintupi.

Donella Clarke has been an interpreter in Alice Springs since 2015.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

For the first time in her career, she is seeing people face the court system without lawyers. People charged with crimes — from driving offences to more serious charges — are being forced to navigate the justice system alone.

“It’s hard for me to actually sit there and watch somebody struggling,” she said.

Ms Clarke loves her job. It’s a crucial role in the Northern Territory that helps Indigenous people who speak English as a second language get fair access to the justice system.

“It’s filling them gaps, with understanding Aboriginal and white man’s way. So you bring that together, then you have no worries of understanding,” she said.

Donella Clarke says it’s difficult seeing people struggle in court.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

Fifty-eight per cent of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“As long as you’ve got us sitting in the middle, we don’t go on anyone’s side,” she said.

Since the end of last year, Ms Clarke said she has witnessed the community losing some of its best lawyers, and that’s when people began representing themselves.

“Some of them look stressed. They will come up and ask, ‘Who is my lawyer? What sort of questions can I ask [the judge]?’ A lot of people coming up saying, ‘Am I going to get locked up today?'”

Staffing crisis

In less than a year, Alice Springs has lost more than half of its criminal defence lawyers.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

Ms Clarke works with criminal defence lawyers, including The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission.

NAAJA — the main legal aid agency for Aboriginal people in the NT — has experienced an exodus of staff since June last year.

The organisation has been facing a string of controversies, including allegations of corruption, an unfair dismissal case, and other high profile staff departures. Their team reduced from 17 lawyers to three.

In November, the agency announced it would stop taking new criminal matters in Alice Springs until the end of 2023 to “ensure the ongoing sustainability” of its criminal practice.

“We just didn’t have capacity within our Central Australian legal practice to be bringing in more new matters at that time,” said Jared Sharp, NAAJA’s acting principal legal officer.

“But I also would say that the context of Central Australia has to be considered. It’s incredibly difficult for all justice organisations in Central Australia, at the present time [to ensure] full staff.”

People are navigating the justice system alone.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

The pause has since been extended to the end of January.

The Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, which has a team of five criminal defence lawyers in Alice Springs, announced in-turn that the agency will only take on new Alice Springs clients who are facing indictable offences — matters that can be committed to the NT Supreme Court — or are youths.

“That’s got to be one of the most difficult decisions … of my professional, and personal life,” said Jenna Charles, managing solicitor of the NT Legal Aid Commission in Alice Springs, where she has practiced for seven years.

A spokesperson for the federal Attorney-General’s department said the service reductions in Alice Springs were of great concern.

“In the short-term, it is critical that necessary actions are taken to restore services in these areas,” the spokesperson said.

“The Australian government is working closely with the Northern Territory government and relevant legal service providers to help address issues that are contributing to service interruptions.”

The NT government said its priority is to restore legal services in Central Australia.

“The Northern Territory government is committed to ensuring that vulnerable First Nations Territorians have access to quality legal services,” a spokesperson said.

“Together with the Commonwealth government [it] is working with the two publicly funded criminal defence legal service providers in the Territory; NAAJA and the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission to maintain service delivery.”

Crime rates in Alice Springs began receiving national attention after a spike in offences during last year’s summer.

The Northern Territory government announced 50 new police officers would be rostered on through this summer period.

‘Miscarriages of justice’

Jenna Charles fears increasing workloads will impact the welfare of her staff.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

Ms Charles says the legal system is difficult for anyone to navigate, let alone with barriers like language, culture, disability, no access to internet, and remote living.

“I just don’t think that people are able to navigate this system in a way where they are not going to run a real risk of having a negative impact on their matters,” she said.

“I do fear that miscarriages of justice have been occurring and will continue to occur while people are having to represent themselves.”

She says watching people self represent in court is extremely distressing.

“There was one that actually brought me to tears while I was in court and I could see it was affecting a number of other people in the courtroom,” she said.

An Aboriginal person, who Ms Charles believes may have had a cognitive impairment and was being assisted by an interpreter, was appearing by video-link.

“The judge was putting in a great deal of effort to make sure that they were explaining options,” Ms Charles said.

“I could see that despite that and despite the interpreter being available, I saw them say they wanted to plead guilty and then demonstrate they didn’t understand what they are pleading guilty to, then didn’t agree with what they were pleading guilty to.

“Seeing that play out, and the stress and confusion with that person, I was just crying in the courtroom.”

NAAJA’s Mr Sharp said it is a devastating situation.

“It can’t be allowed to continue. We’re working as quickly as we can. And I believe all services are as well, to fill that gap and provide legal services for everyone who needs them.”

He said the organisation is using locum lawyers, hiring people on short-term contracts, and recruiting for long-term positions.

Jenna Charles works late into the evening.(ABC News: Emily Jane Smith)

After a full day in court, Ms Charles often works well into the night before clocking off.

“There is enough work to go on forever,” she said

“One of the biggest difficulties for me in the current situation is not knowing when it’s going to end or when it’s going to improve.”

It is a situation she says has left her concerned for not only those representing themselves in court but her team, whose workload has increased by 33 per cent.

“This situation is really emotionally taxing,” she said.

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