We spoke with this year’s Queensland Law Society First Nations Award winners to learn a bit more about them and discuss their involvement with achieving justice outcomes for First Nations peoples.
The First Nations Solicitor Award recognises and celebrates Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander practitioners for their contribution to furthering access to justice for Queensland First Nations peoples.
Darren Lewis, from Legal Aid Queensland, is one of two First Nations Solicitor of the Year Award winners this year, the other recipient being Nareeta Davis from Holding Redlich.
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Toowoomba and raised on the land, and I have spent all of my working life in regional and rural Australia. From my maternal grandmother, I’m an Iningai man. They were a mob who had their country around the Thomson River and hailed from the Barcaldine region, through to Longreach and some of the country around Blackall.
Why did you want to pursue law?
I recall a conversation I had with my mum when I was in high school. She told me she’d had to go into town during the day to see the local solicitor. I knew of him, because his kids were about my age. I didn’t know a whole lot about him or what he did. I remember saying: “Oh really, what’s that about? What does he do? He’s a solicitor, what does that involve?” She explained that it had something to do with a lease of farming property.
I remember thinking that this might be something that I could do! I started reading everything I could find about the law, beginning with some legal textbooks that my school library had, but also some books I later realised were about jurisprudence and the philosophical underpinning of the law.
This really fascinated me and because I’d already developed a keen interest in history, geography and the human condition, I saw how all of these might impact upon society. The law was something I fell into from there, and I really enjoyed my studies and the practice of the law. It’s given me so many opportunities to meet all sorts and conditions of people.
In terms of the role I try to fulfil as a lawyer, I aim to be an energetic person who is motivated to do a job properly and in a way that reflects well upon me and my family, upon the legal profession and upon the system of law and courts which govern our country.
What was your first legal working role?
The first job I ever had in the law was as an advice solicitor for a short period of time for an organisation now called TASC (The Advocacy and Support Centre) National. It had been the Toowoomba Community Legal Service, which outreached the Darling Downs and South-West Queensland.
How would you like to see the legal profession develop to improve First Nations peoples’ wellbeing?
I think that community education about the legal system is important, offered in a friendly and culturally appropriate way. I’d like to see the continued promotion of law, justice and criminology careers for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I believe that, based on records maintained by Queensland Law Society, fewer than 0.7% of practising certificate holders identify as First Nations people.
I know that QLS is keen to encourage a growth in these numbers, in what is a worthwhile and fulfilling career. Legal Aid Queensland has taken active steps to recruit First Nations lawyers and support staff, and I hope that other employers may do likewise.
How has your current working role improved the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians?
I have the great honour to have been appointed by the Childrens Court as a separate representative for children in the care and protection jurisdiction, and as an independent children’s lawyer by the family law courts.
I see one of my roles in those courts as asking questions that nobody else has asked, or asked in quite that way, and to make some further investigations or to prompt other investigations, accordingly. I don’t pretend that I’ve any greater intellect, and certainly no greater degree of wisdom or insight, than anyone else. But I hope to be that third voice coming in to speak up on behalf of children, who might otherwise not have a voice. Now, that is a very great privilege and one that I hope I’ve been able to exercise in a diligent and productive manner.
Your question has made me think some more about the causes for disadvantage in the indigenous community. I’m never one for making excuses for people – although perhaps I’ve made a career out of looking for reasons for things. I think that economic disadvantage is still a very critical area to come to terms with, in understanding some of the disadvantage that Indigenous people in Australia still face today.
When I break this down, I continue to be worried about the scholastic attendance of our young people. I’m not so worried about the numbers at universities. I’m not even much worried either, about kids who are completing Senior. I see the critical problem being a failure to best engage with the education system in the early years, right through until Grade 10. That is where I see cause for alarm.
I also continue to observe, with some worry, the mental health challenges faced by Indigenous people, but also physical health – and they dovetail at some level. When I say physical health, I’m looking here at internal health. There are far too many Indigenous people at far too young an age, presenting with conditions like diabetes. Another continually worrying trend for me, is the overrepresentation of Indigenous families in the correctional and child protection systems.
What can the general community do to help further justice outcomes for First Nations communities?
From time to time, I’m asked to make an acknowledgement of country. At these events, I tend to add in that I hope everyone who is present, will then go and share some of what they’ve learnt, with a First Nations person they know.
I am glad that Australia is the largely decent and tolerant society which we have today. As I see it, a sense of shame, helplessness and mistrust (often in combination) are some of the significant factors holding back Indigenous people from taking their best place in our society.
We’re certainly living in a more culturally and linguistically diverse community than ever before. I’d like to suggest that tolerance, forbearance and kindness towards others is going to be even more than usually important, in these troubling times in which we’re living. In short, treating others as we might best hope be treated by them is the key for our ongoing survival as a community.
Darren Lewis has shown great dedication for achieving justice for people from all walks of life. His legal work continues to improve access to justice for First Nations peoples.
QLS acknowledges First Nations people as Australia’s original custodians and inhabitants, respects their cultural distinctions and values their rich contribution to Queensland and Australia as a whole.
You can become part of positive change for First Nations people and effect policy and legislative change in Queensland.
The views expressed above belong to Darren Lewis and are not put forward in his role as an employee of Legal Aid Queensland. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the body corporate which is Legal Aid Queensland.