Our History

A proud Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation

The Aboriginal Legal Service opened our doors in 1970 in Redfern as the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia, and the first free legal assistance service in the country – that makes us almost 50 years old!

After dispossession, new laws were imposed, and used to rule over our communities. We had no say in the laws that were created and the police and the courts have historically played a fundamental role in the oppression of Aboriginal peoples.

The ALS was founded as a response to this injustice, and in acknowledgement of the importance of Aboriginal people designing and delivering services to our own communities.

Today the ALS does legal work in criminal law, children’s care and protection law and family law. We also support the development of wraparound programs and undertake broader policy and law reform work.

We continue to fight for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in NSW and the ACT.

A Brief History of Resistance

Arbitrary Curfews and Discrimination

Some of the first major stirrings of change came in the 1960s. There was a small group of Aboriginal activists in Redfern, influenced by the Black Power movement in the US. They read people like Huey Newtown, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver. In America, the Black Panthers confronted the American police.

In Inner Sydney, police were enforcing a curfew at night that solely targeted at Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people walking the streets in Redfern, Newtown, Alexandria and Chippendale were subject to arbitrary, violent arrest and detention by police.

At night, when Aboriginal people met at local hotels in Redfern, police often blocked the nearby streets with police paddy wagons before closing time. They would move into the hotels and force Aboriginal customers out onto the streets. Police regularly arrested Aboriginal people indiscriminately and held them overnight in the cells. They were often unfairly charged with offences like drunkenness, offensive behaviour and offensive language.

There were many complaints by Aboriginal people of being assaulted in the cells. At this time, there wasn’t any access to effective legal representation. Most Aboriginal people appeared unrepresented in court and simply pleaded guilty.

The Redfern Activists

A group of Redfern Activists that included Paul and Isabel Coe, Gary Foley, Billy and Lyn Craigie, Gary Williams, Bronwyn Penrith, Tony Coorey, and James Wedge, started monitoring and recording the everyday experience of police brutality and harrassment.

They approached white lawyers, trade union groups and university students who had no idea about the scale of discrimination nor the notorious curfew imposed on Aboriginal people in Redfern.

One of the people they enlisted to the cause was Justice Wootten, the Dean of New South Wales’  Law School and former Supreme Court Judge. In turn, he brought on a number of other prominent lawyers to change State Government police policies towards Aboriginal people around the inner city areas of Sydney.

At night as observers, they  attended local hotels to confirm the claims made by Aboriginal people, and see whether their presence would deter police from unfairly arresting large numbers of Aboriginal people. The claims of abuse and intimidation by police were confirmed.

Australia's first free legal service

By the end of 1970, a group of practicing lawyers regularly volunteered their time and expertise in support of the Redfern Activists’ mission. The result was a 20 thousand dollar grant from the Federal Government for the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia, and indeed, the first ever free legal service in the country.

Volunteer groups of young law students also offered their time to arrange bail, interview Aboriginal people in the lock-up, and prepare defences cases. The goal was to provide representation, reduce incarceration and stop police harassment of Aboriginal people.

The service was Australia’s first free legal service, setting the model for mainstream community legal aid. The ALS elected a Council that included members of Aboriginal communities, which is a historically significant act of self-determination. The ALS was the first community controlled, free legal-aid centre with a shop front in Australia.

In early 1971, within the first twelve months of a 24-hour telephone service being offered, the service had handled over 550 cases, with the vast majority being criminal.

The ALS 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.

The social and individual bravery of those original Redfern Activists, which led to the successful establishment of the ALS inspired others. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people throughout Australia began their own steps towards solving community policing and legal problems confronting Aboriginal people.

In 1972 the Whitlam government pledged to provide representation for all Aboriginal people in all courts of law. This was a first. The number of ALS criminal and civil cases surged, revealing the wide scope of legal problems faced by Aboriginal people in Australia.

A model of self-determination

In 1973, the ALS voted into office its first full Aboriginal Council, putting into practice the values and aspirations of the members of the ALS for Aboriginal self-determination.

The involvement of Aboriginal people in both management and service delivery was critical to tailoring the ALS to the needs of Aboriginal communities. Women and men who were leaders in their own communities were elected as field officers and the same resourcing model applied to staff.

What started as a single shop-front office in Redfern spread throughout the rest of the State. By 1974 there was an ALS in every State and Territory throughout Australia.

In 1975, more regional offices opened their doors; ensuring culturally appropriate services like the first office by installing members of the Boards from local Aboriginal communities in Nowra and Brewarrina, respectively.

By the late 1970s, breakaway legal services for Aboriginal people formed in southern and western NSW. Their successful operation depended largely on local Aboriginal communities and individuals having oversight as well as being represented in service management.

The ALS established a solid track record of working with and for the Aboriginal community, inspiring a new wave of Aboriginal community controlled organisations to start up around the country using the same model. These new Aboriginal organisations were designed to provide much needed services for health, housing and child-care, as well as contribute to the development of pride, dignity and self-respect in the Aboriginal community.

Later in 1980, ALS's unique model of service delivery - of Field Officers working side by side with lawyers - was officially recognised and applauded in the 'Ruddock Report', which noted that "the practice of providing advice and assistance in welfare matters by the ALS was well-founded, particularly when matters are connected to legal problems."

 

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report

The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report was released by the Royal Commission in 1991. It found that the factors causing Aboriginal people to come into conflict with the criminal justice system was a fundamental cause for the over representation of Aboriginal people in custody. It listed the systemic disadvantaged and unequal position of Aboriginal people in society – socially, economically and culturally - as the most significant contributing factor and recommended that Aboriginal Legal Service providers extend beyond legal advice to investigation and research into law reform.

The following year, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered the famous Redfern Speech in which he notably acknowledged the injustices and wrongdoings that Aboriginal people have experienced. He said;

We simply cannot sweep injustice aside...
The Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody showed with devastating clarity that the past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice...
The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include [I]ndigenous Australians.

Native Title is recognised

On 3 June 1992, six of the seven High Court judges ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius or ‘land belonging to no-one’ when European settlement occurred and that Eddie Koiki Mabo on behalf of the traditional owners of the Murray Islands, the Meriam people, had Native Title. This historic case known as the Mabo decision recognised the fact that Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and ultimately had wide implications for the recognition of rights of Aboriginal people to enjoy the land according to their own laws and custom.

Years later, on 23 December 1996, the power of Native title extended to the mainland with the High Court ruling in favour of the Wik people, asserting that the claim of traditional owners could not be extinguished by mining or pastoral leaseholders.

A call and walk for reconciliation

In 1997, the Australian Human Rights Commission released The Bringing Them Home Report that recommended the government take action to respond to issues facing the Stolen Generations.

This same year at the Reconciliation Convention, then Prime Minister Johm Howard referred to the ongoing struggle of Indigenous Australians as a ‘blemish’ on history. This statement prompted many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audience members to turn their backs on him in protest.

The year before, Howard stated that he “profoundly rejected the black armband view of Australian history” and noted that Australians “have been too apologetic about our history in the past”. This heightened tensions between the government and Aboriginal and reconciliation groups.

On 28 May 2000, the ‘Walk for Reconciliation’ had a record setting 250,000 people marching together over five and a half hours across the Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation. Notably, Prime Minister Howard did not attend despite the overall success.

A new Company

In 2006, the coalition of six Aboriginal Legal Services in NSW and ACT came together to form a single organisation for NSW and ACT. It was an opportunity for renewal and change; it consolidated its efforts to provide legal services to Aboriginal people that would continue to meet their needs through the recognition of cultural differences, choices and expectations.

As a company, the ALS is owned by the Aboriginal communities it works on behalf of in NSW and ACT. It strengthened its commitment to being an Aboriginal community controlled organisation by having a strong Aboriginal Board representing diverse communities to the ALS.

A unified ALS also strengthened the voice of Aboriginal communities in NSW and in the ACT, creating a stronger platform from which to advocate to State and National Governments and other service providers for law reform and services for Aboriginal people.

Reparations for the past and present

The release of the Bringing Them Home report in 1995, prompted then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to deliver a national apology to victims of the Stolen Generations. On 13 February 2008, he said;

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

Despite this apology, Aboriginal children were and are still being taken away from their families at a faster rate than at any time during the Stolen Generations. There are also a number of unanswered questions regarding reparations for those affected.

Subsequently - and as a primary focus and service since 2011 - ALS has concentrated on Criminal Law and Children's Care and Protection Law. 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. A year later, ALS formalised a partnership with Legal Aid NSW to assist in the representation of Aboriginal people in key areas.

In 2013, the ALS started a small Family Law practice in response to a huge unmet legal need in Aboriginal communities.

#savetheALS

In 2015, ALS faced a government funding cut of $3.150 million or nearly 17% of its annual budget, equating to losing some eighteen frontline lawyers, two-to-three remote offices, threatening their ability to deliver essential legal services. In response, ALS ran a campaign called #savetheALS to reverse the massive cuts,  which was successful and resulted in the continuation of financial support from the Commonwealth Government.

 

 

Today

Today the ALS is made up of over 200 staff across 24 offices throughout NSW and the ACT. The ALS does legal work in Criminal law, children’s Care and Protection law and Family law. We assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children through representation in court, advice and information, and referral to further support services. 

After the apology in 2007, the number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care is nine times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children taken from their homes are the most vulnerable children in our society. The ALS has dedicated Care and Protection Lawyers and Field Officers who work with child protection matters.

Of the 2,608 people who have died in custody since 1979–80, almost one-fifth were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody remain high.

Despite only making up 3% of the Australian population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 28% of the adult-prison population. These statistics continue to impact on Aboriginal communities throughout NSW and ACT.

Ways to Get Involved