23-year-old Gunggandji man Joel Murgha was admitted as a lawyer at the Cairns Supreme Court on Friday 15 October, watched on by a large number of family and community members from his small Aboriginal hometown of Yarrabah.
Joel moved to Brisbane in 2016 to start his law degree and to complete practical legal training at the Queensland University of Technology, where he graduated in 2020.
Joel has since moved back up north, to Cairns, to begin his role with Bottoms English Lawyers, and was admitted last Friday alongside one of his colleagues.
“It was unreal,” he said. “It was good to have my family, extended family and a lot of community members from Yarrabah there to support me and be able to celebrate it together as a family achievement and as a community achievement.
“It was nice to have all of my family there, especially my grandmother, as she wasn’t able to make my graduation because it was in Brisbane – so to get admitted in Cairns and to have her attend meant a lot to me.
“But it doesn’t just mean a lot to me – it means a lot to my family and to the (Yarrabah) community as well.”
Yarrabah, in far north Queensland, is about a 50-kilometre drive from Cairns and home to circa 3000 people.
Joel chose barrister Melia Benn to move his admission. Melia is one of only two female Indigenous barristers in Queensland and, like Joel, is a descendant of the Gunggandji people, whose traditional homelands include where the town Yarrabah is situated.
“It was a very special day for me,” Melia said. “Days like this are important, for the old people to see how their guidance was integral to Mr Murgha’s success so far, and for the young people, to see what they are capable of achieving.
“There was a huge community turnout, including Mr Murgha’s primary school teachers and all of his elders. There were also young family members, including a first-year law student.
“It was an honour to be involved in the ceremony – I’ll cherish that day for many years to come.”
Before Justice James Henry officially admitted Joel to the legal profession, Joel’s grandmother presented him with a traditional ceremonial headpiece.
“For Justice Henry to allow my grandmother to put the headdress on me during the admission ceremony, that was a special moment for me as well – to have that cultural experience happen alongside the Western experience,” Joel said.
Joel with mother Elverina and brothers Benjamin, Levi and Thaddeaus.
Joel said it also meant a lot to him to have his three brothers there on the day. Joel took care of his younger brother Levi, who was about 12 at the time, for a few years while in Brisbane. Levi had watched on as Joel completed his law degree.
“He experienced what it was like for me studying and having to be at uni while I was looking after him and getting him sorted for school,” Joel said. “It was good for him to see where it has all led to, and what all that study was meant for.”
Joel was drawn to the challenge of pursuing a legal career and the commitment, dedication and perseverance he knew would be required to practise law. He also explains that for many Aboriginal communities, there is a focus on sporting career opportunities, particularly through rugby league, and another driver of him studying law was to prove that there are other options out there.
“Law’s not something that’s really considered for a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but for the people I grew up with, it’s not something we really thought about or considered as an option.
“I wanted to do something that was going to be a challenge – to challenge myself and show that we can do those things if we want to – whether it be becoming a lawyer or a doctor, whatever profession you choose to be in, that it’s achievable still.”
Joel with his sons and partner Sonjah following the ceremony.
For now, Joel is focusing on gaining experience, figuring out which area of law he enjoys most and seeing what opportunities come up. He has two young boys with partner Sonjah and says a lot will depend on what is best suited for his family. Joel does, however, see himself practising as a barrister in the future!