Justice & the Law: Indigenous Perspectives

Vivien Holmes: As Convener of Lawyers, Justice and Ethics (a compulsory first year Law course), I was keen to help students understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on law and justice are often very different from the perspectives embedded in the Australian legal system. And further, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Law is intimately connected to their relationship to land, to ‘country’.

The best way to do this was to invite my colleagues Professor Asmi Wood and Justin McCaul into dialogue with me about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives on law and justice, land rights and, following on from this, about the role of lawyers in navigating the intersections between Indigenous perspectives on law/justice and the Australian legal system.  

Asmi Wood, Vivien Holmes and Justin McCaul

Justin McCaul: I am a descendent of the Mbarbarum people of far north Queensland and started my PhD at ANU in 2019. When I was approached by Vivien Holmes, Convener of Lawyers, Justice and Ethics, she was keen to explore the legal pluralism and how Indigenous law continues to exist alongside the dominant Australian legal system. 

She invited me to participate and provide feedback on this proposal to design a course that would provide non-Indigenous students with a greater insight into how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience law and justice.

Vivien Holmes: ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT) colleagues Rafael Florez and Dr Kelly Frame suggested that Asmi, Justin and I have this conversation outside – along the ANU Aboriginal Heritage Trail – so as to showcase the beautiful trail and its rich history reaching back millennia. This way, we could also create a connection between the students who were studying remotely due to COVID-19 and the ANU campus, and encourage them to walk the trail themselves when they were able to be physically present on campus again. 

With the kind permission of ANU Heritage, I recorded a voiceover that drew directly from information produced for the Aboriginal Heritage Trail – accessible via the ANU Walks App and the amazing Trail booklet. The final video came together using the brilliant music of Indigenous composer Dr Christopher Sainsbury from the ANU School of Music, who also kindly allowed us to use his compositions.

In addition to this content, we also included footage of some of the wonderful Aboriginal artwork in the Moot Court located in the ANU College of Law building. Some of this artwork documents confronting history about the clash between the Australian legal system and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Law. The footage of this artwork, and of beautiful places on campus, enabled me to present important ideas and themes in the most engaging way possible for students studying on Zoom.  

Justin McCaul: Also invited to discuss Indigenous perspectives on law was Professor Asmi Wood, a Torres Strait Islander man and professor at the ANU College of Law. As outlined above, Vivien proposed to create a video of Professor Wood and I discussing issues non-Indigenous lawyers should be cognisant of as they navigate the intersections between indigenous perspectives on law/justice and the Anglo-Australian legal system. 

With the support from CLT, we filmed at sites along the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Trail on the ANU Acton campus – a key theme was Indigenous peoples’ connection to Country – which provided a beautiful backdrop to the discussions. 

Vivien Holmes: The seminar (again, on Zoom) that accompanied the video ‘lecture’ was designed with the assistance from CLT, using ideas from the 8 ways of learning pedagogy. This is a pedagogical framework that allows teachers to include Aboriginal perspectives by using Aboriginal learning techniques. ‘8 Ways’ is a constantly developing body of communal expertise held by the traditional keepers of knowledge in Aboriginal communities throughout western NSW. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers contribute to the framework in an ongoing cross-cultural dialogue. Francoise Muller, from the CLT communications team, produced a fabulous learning map for the seminar: the idea (part of the 8 ways pedagogy) was to visually depict the learning journey taken during the seminar. The map indicates that this way of learning is not linear.

Feedback from tutors and students was very positive. Some students suggested that this aspect of the curriculum could be covered in the first few weeks to give more context to the rest of the course – an idea I am seriously considering. One tutor commented “I have loved preparing this class and watching the video you prepared. I know the material is designed to challenge students, but I feel incredibly challenged and am very grateful for that.” Many thanks to the CLT team for all the creativity they brought to bear on this project.

Justin McCaul: The video was essentially a conversation between Vivien, Asmi and me about Indigenous perspectives on law and justice, with myself drawing on my experience working with many native title groups for more than a decade, and Asmi discussing theoretical issues between the two systems of law.  

As an Aboriginal man working at ANU, I felt this was a great initiative to be part of, and illustrated how creative teaching can be, especially during the lockdown period due to COVID-19 in which all teaching was moved online. Also, it was particularly satisfying to be part of such a genuine and heartfelt project that wanted ANU students to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people and the law. I think students really appreciate it when their lecturers make the content of a course as engaging as possible and when they can also hear the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

May 2021

Vivien Holmes is an Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law.
Justin McCaul is a Research Associate and PhD candidate at the ANU College of Law.
Asmi Wood is a Professor at the ANU College of Law.