The beginnings of a movement

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Legal Service. Here’s how it all began.

In Inner Sydney in the 1960s, police were enforcing a curfew at night that solely targeted 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, 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. They were then indiscriminately arrested and held overnight in the cells, where they were often brutalised. At this time, no access to effective legal representation existed for Aboriginal people. As a result. many appeared unrepresented in court, and simply pleaded guilty.

“Our people were blatantly targeted, arrested and charged with nonsense offences like public drunkenness, offensive behaviours and offensive language,” said ALS chair Mark Davies — at the launch, in April, of an exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the organisation. “The ever-present threat of these charges, along with a nightly curfew, were designed to keep us under the thumb of the police and state.”

Influenced by the Black Power movement in the US, 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 harassment. They approached white lawyers, trade union groups and university students — none of whom had any idea about the scale of discrimination, nor the notorious curfew imposed on Aboriginal people in Redfern and the surrounding areas.

One of the people enlisted to the cause was Hal Wootten — then dean of the UNSW Faculty of Law and, later, a supreme court judge. Wootten and colleagues visited local hotels to confirm the claims made by the Aboriginal community. The allegations of police abuse and intimidation were affirmed.

By the end of 1970, from a single shop-front office in Redfern, a group of practicing lawyers regularly volunteered their time and expertise in support of the activists’ mission. Volunteer groups of young law students also offered their time to arrange bail, interview Aboriginal people in lock-up, and prepare defences cases. The goal was to provide representation, reduce incarceration and stop police harassment of Aboriginal people.

After having received a $20,000 grant from the federal government, the activists and volunteers were able to formally establish the first Aboriginal Legal Service in Australia. By early 1971, the ALS had handled over 550 cases, the vast majority criminal.

“The beating heart of Redfern and the self-determination that lives here is because of the legal service,” said shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, also at the exhibition launch. “I remember myself as a very young Aboriginal woman moving to Sydney from Wiradjuri Country and being able to absorb the strength of the organisations like the Aboriginal Legal Service.” 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 taking their own steps towards solving community policing and legal problems confronting Aboriginal people.

In 1973, the ALS voted into office its first full Aboriginal council, putting into working practice Aboriginal self-determination. The involvement of Aboriginal people in both management and service delivery was critical to tailoring the ALS to the needs of First Nations 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 began in Redfern, soon spread throughout the rest of the country. By 1974, there was an ALS in every state and territory throughout Australia.

Today, the Aboriginal Legal Service has a network of 24 offices across NSW and the ACT. The service continues to provide free support and representation in areas of criminal law, family law, children’s care and protection, and rental and tenancy advice. “This movement belongs to each and every Aboriginal and Torres Islander people — it is made stronger by the support of many allies,” said Davies. “We are proud of what we have achieved over the years, but the work is not done. We need ongoing support so that we are around for 50 years more.”