The story of the Aboriginal Legal Service is a chapter in a long history of resistance. Aboriginal peoples have resisted the injustice of colonisation ever since the first ships entered Bidjigal, Wangal and Gadigal waters.
We pick up that history from the late 1960s, when the first sparks of a great idea began - and eventually grew into Australia's first free legal service.
Redfern in the 1960s
Some of the first major stirrings of change came in the 1960s. Around this time, young people from regional towns across NSW were flocking to a vibrant and proud Black cultural scene in Redfern. A small and staunch group of Redfern activists were emerging, influenced by the Black Power movement in the US. They read the works of people like Huey Newtown, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver. From afar, they watched as the Black Panthers made waves.
Like so much of Australia, Redfern was marred by rampant police discrimination and brutality against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Police were enforcing a nightly curfew that solely targeted at Aboriginal people. Black 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 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.
Many Aboriginal people complained of being assaulted in the cells, but there was little to no accountability for police officers' actions. At this time, the vast majority of Aboriginal communities lacked access to effective legal representation. Most Aboriginal people appeared unrepresented in court and had few options but to plead guilty to the trumped-up charges brought against them.
Young activists take up the fight
The band of Redfern activists, inspired by the American Black Power movement, committed themselves to fighting back through protest, advocacy, and defending racist police charges in court.
This group of staunch leaders-in-the-making included - to name a few - Paul and Isabel Coe, Gary Foley, Billy and Lyn Craigie, Gary Williams, Bronwyn Penrith, Tony Coorey, James Wedge, Bob and Sol Bellear, Alanna Doolan, Ann Weldon, Les Collins, Gordon Briscoe and Cec Patten.
They started monitoring and recording the everyday experience of police brutality and harrassment, building a database that could be used to demonstrate the problem and lobby for justice.
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 Professor Hal Wootten, the Dean of the UNSW Law School and former Supreme Court Judge. In turn, he brought on a number of other prominent lawyers. The Redfern Aboriginal activists were supported by several white volunteers - largely young law students - including Alan Cameron, Eddy Neumann, Peter Stapleton and more.
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 easily confirmed.
The Redfern activists and their allies helped arrange bail, interview Aboriginal people in the lock-up, and prepare defence cases for Black people who'd been arrested. The goal was to provide representation, reduce incarceration and stop police harassment of Aboriginal people.
Australia's first free legal service
The first Aboriginal Legal Service office opened on Regent Street, Redfern, in early 1970. By the end of that year, the team received a $20,000 Commonwealth grant. While it wasn't nearly enough funding to meet the needs of Aboriginal people ensnared by the legal system, it was an important symbolic recognition for the early ALS team's work.
For the first time, Aboriginal people were being represented in Sydney courts and defending charges brought against them by police. The ALS became a legal force to be reckoned with, and it didn't take long for other Aboriginal Legal Services to follow the Redfern model and emerge across Australia.
In early 1971, within the first twelve months of a 24-hour telephone service being offered, the Redfern ALS had handled over 550 cases, with the vast majority being in criminal law.
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. The strength of our model was in community control as well as the role of Aboriginal field officers as a 'go-between', offering cultural support and bridging the gaps between solicitors, magistrates and clients. This approach remains central to teh ALS today.
In 1975, more regional ALS 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.
Later on in 1980, the ALS' 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."
Renewal and unity
In 2006, the coalition of six Aboriginal Legal Services in NSW and ACT came together to form a single organisation: the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited. It was an opportunity for renewal and change, consolidating everyone's efforts to provide the most effective legal services possible.
As a company, the ALS is owned by the Aboriginal communities it works for. We are governed by an Aboriginal Board of Directors and led by an Aboriginal CEO. (Visit our governance page for more information.)
A unified ALS also strengthened the voices of Aboriginal communities in NSW and in the ACT, creating a stronger platform from which to advocate for law reform and to hold governments, police, prisons and other powerful people to account.
Expanding our impact
After amalgamating into one united Aboriginal Legal Service, we ramped up our representation for Aboriginal families facing intervention from so-called child protection authorities. Many Aboriginal parents facing the removal of their children were members of the Stolen Generations themselves.
In 2013, we also started providing legal information, advice and representation in family law, in response to a huge level of unmet need in our communities.
In 2015, we faced a government funding cut of $3.15 million or nearly 17% of our annual budget, equating to losing some 18 frontline lawyers plus 2 or 3 remote offices. In response, we ran a campaign called #savetheALS, calling on government to reverse the massive cuts, which would have the effect of severely limiting access to justice for many Aboriginal people. Thankfully, the campaign was successful and resulted in the continuation of financial support from the Commonwealth Government. Yet this dark chapter in our history serves as a reminder that together with our allies, we must remain vigilant to ensure our vital services are adequately funded and Aboriginal people get the legal support they deserve.
The fight for justice continues
Today, the ALS is made up of well over 250 staff across 23 locations throughout NSW and the ACT. We deliver free, culturally appropriate legal advice, representation, information and referrals for thousands of people each year. We also provide social justice programs and advocate for our people in public, in the media, and in parliament.
Sadly, the need for our services is growing. While authorities continue to lock up Aboriginal people and remove our children from home at vastly disproportionate rates, it's clear the fight is not over.
In the past half-century we've come a long way, but there is much further still to go. We are committed to staying true to our legacy of protest and resistance. Our communities can count on us to keep fighting for justice.