Our First Nations Cadetship Program aim to address the underrepresentation of First Nations peoples in the legal sector, support students’ professional development, boost the representation of First Nations people in the community legal sector, and increase access to justice in New South Wales.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students face a range of barriers to entering the legal education system, and remain under-represented within the Australian legal community.
The legal education system
The legacy of colonisation created educational disadvantage that starts from the very first years of school, and leads to a lower rate of Indigenous students enrolling into higher education. According to Melville, the Australian legal education system favours a western model that ‘delegitimizes Indigenous knowledge’ and denies ‘Indigenous understandings of the law’. Many Aboriginal students report being subject to institutional racism at universities, inappropriate curriculum and cultural barriers, and economic exclusion. One survey found that 77% of the Indigenous law students enrolled at a university had experienced cultural disrespect or racism from staff or students in the law school, while a significant number of Indigenous law students (82%) experienced a tension between their studies and community responsibilities.
First Nations employment in the legal profession
Similarly, the legal profession has traditionally excluded many groups, including as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lawyers; as a consequence, representation of marginalised groups in the legal profession has remained persistently low.
Today, in spite of the great successes of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lawyers, the number and proportion of First Nations solicitors and barristers remains low. Less than 1% of lawyers across the continent are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, according to the Law Society of New South Wales’ National Profile of Solicitors.
First Nations employment in the community legal sector in NSW
First Nations employment over the last ten years across the community legal sector has increased at least fivefold, from 12 people in 2011 to close to 70 people in 2022. A considerable proportion of our workforce – an estimated 10% of all community legal centre staff – are First Nations people.
Community Legal Centres NSW is committed to supporting existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and increasing the employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through pathways such as the First Nations Cadetship, so that our workforce is not only reflective of the communities that we support, but best-able to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are involved in the justice system.
Meeting our commitments under the Closing the Gap Agreement and the NSW Legal Assistance Strategy 2022-2025
One of the key benefits of employing First Nations people is that it enables community legal centres to deliver culturally safe and responsive legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This boosts NSW’s ability to meet the outcomes of the Closing the Gap agreement, and to meet our commitments under the New South Wales Legal Assistance Strategy 2022–2025.
The New South Wales Legal Assistance Strategy 2022–2025 identifies supporting “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in the sector to increase representation in employment” as a key priority (Priority 2). Programs such
as the First Nations Cadetship Program are one avenue through which we can achieve higher rates of First Nations employment. Such programs allow community legal centres to build trusted relationships and culturally-safe and responsive services, and to prioritise the voices and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In the long term, the First Nations Cadetship Program gives First Nations students clear, supported avenues for employment in the legal assistance sector.
- Burns, M. ‘Are We There Yet? Indigenous Cultural Competency in Legal Education’, Legal Education Review, 28(2), 2019.
- Melville, A. ‘Educational Disadvantages and Indigenous Law Students: Barriers and Potential Solutions’, Asian Journal of Legal Education, 4(2), 2017.
- Melville, A. ‘Barriers to Entry into Law School: An Examination of Socio- Economic and Indigenous Disadvantage’, Legal Education Review, 24(1), 2014.
- Walsh, K. ‘Tony McAvoy: Indigenous barristers still rare,’ Financial Review, 2015.
- Law Society of New South Wales, ‘National Profile of Solicitors’, 2020. Available at: https://www.lawsociety.com.au/advocacy-and-resources/gender-statistics/profiles- surveys-and-statistics.