MORE than 90 per cent of people in Arnhem Land do not understand basic legal concepts, with many Aborigines under the impression that white society is “lawless”, a report has found.
This has resulted in wrongful imprisonment and “massive confusion”, with some communities still unaware that rape is considered illegal, says Richard Trudgen, CEO of the Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS).
In a report titled An Absence of Mutual Respect, researchers spoke to Yolngu people from a cross-section of the community, including interpreters, locals and community leaders.
They were quizzed on the 30 most commonly used English legal words such as bail, commit, arrest, charge and guilty.
The ARDS report found 95 per cent of Yolngu people were unable to correctly identify their meaning.
Only 17 per cent of responses from language professionals were correct while 90 per cent of community leaders, such as ATSIC members, school teachers and council representatives, had no understanding of the terms at all.
Ninety-seven per cent of Yolngu people born after 1967 fell into the lowest category of understanding.
“This research found that many Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land had little comprehension of what was happening in the legal system,” Mr Trudgen said.
“This still leads to many outcomes that are unjust and can also be a factor in some people getting into further trouble.
“Many elders also believe it is one of the main reasons for increased crime on Aboriginal communities.”
Mr Trudgen said the results explained the stark over-representation of Aborigines in territory prisons—currently over 80 per cent—and why increasing numbers of young males were falling foul of the law after moving to large urban centres.
“People thought that pleading guilty actually got them through the court quickly and they didn’t go to jail,” he said.
“There is massive confusion out there about white fella law point blank.”
In conclusion, the report found many Aborigines were disempowered when it came to dealing with the legal system, and it recommended communication programs to bridge the gap.
It said Aboriginal people often thought they were functioning within a lawless society because “they don’t understand it so they see it as lawless”.
This can lead to “quite devastating consequences”, said Mr Trudgen, who referred to the case of an elder who had asked him if rape was illegal.
“When I said yes, he told me ‘none of our young people know that’.
“This is 2008. When are we going to have an emergency response into communication in these communities?”
Researchers also interviewed some people in prison.
“When they realised what the term guilty meant they were able to identify some of the things that they were convicted of that they never had anything to do with,” Mr Trudgen said.