By Siobhan Ryan
David Woodroffe, Principal Legal Officer for the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), says diverting Aboriginal children away from the criminal justice system must be the priority of Northern Territory legal reform.
Child protection was David’s main motivation for entering the legal field, as his father and grandmother were both part of the stolen generation.
“For many Aboriginal lawyers, their family’s history is really what drives them to go into the law,” David said.
He studied law to “ensure that things such as child removal and the stolen generation would never happen again.”
David’s work with NAAJA, a not-for-profit legal service for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, earnt him the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Law Award in 2017.
Much of his work that year involved facilitating children’s participation in the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, which he described as “the greatest privilege of my legal career” during his acceptance speech.
Nearly a year later, David told me, “the most moving thing that came out of the Royal Commission process was having young children, Aboriginal children, who were able to say this was the first time that they thought their voice had been heard and that they had been able to engage in a courtroom.”
In particular, he noted the significance of having an Aboriginal Commissioner, an Aboriginal Senior Counsel Assisting and Aboriginal people in many other roles, which is “such a rare occurrence.”
While the Royal Commission made 2017 a very busy year for David, his involvement since then in the implementation of its findings and a range of other Northern Territory legal reform processes has made this year “even bigger” than the last.
Just one of his activities this year has been in discussions around a bill to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 and ensure that children under the age of 14 are not sentenced to detention.
However, one issue David identifies in the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations is a lack of funding. “There is commitment, but the money needs to be there,” he said.
He also believes legal reform alone will not solve the issues, and that it needs to be accompanied by changes in practice and working with communities.
“It’s been a major year of ongoing crisis and turmoil within our youth justice system, and we hear regularly about the issues in Don Dale and Alice Springs detention centres around the lack of adequate therapeutic programs, the use of separation, and children being removed from their country,” he said.
Justice reinvestment could provide a solution that both supports communities and addresses funding issues, according to David.
Justice reinvestment involves reallocating funds from the criminal justice system towards programs to assist Aboriginal communities in “actually tackling these fundamental issues so we don’t see children being perpetually removed, or children being perpetually arrested on minor offences.”
“We know that the best way to achieve this is keeping children safe in the communities ... with family.”
Image: Matthew Syres; left to right: Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow, David Woodroffe, and Commission President Rosalind Croucher