Nikita Sellin never imagined she would end up living and working on Mornington Island, let alone that she would be the only legal practitioner in the region.
Mornington Island – 28 kilometres off the coast of mainland Australia in the Gulf of Carpentaria – is a very remote Queensland community home to circa 1200 people. But Nikita is no stranger to small towns, having grown up in the Indigenous area of Yarrabah in far north Queensland, a 40-minute drive from Cairns.
“I grew up at a place called Oombunji, 10 minutes away from the main community, surrounded by bush and creeks – I was lucky to have my own creek in the backyard, where I taught my three sisters how to swim,” she said.
“I learnt about bush food, and I rode and caught horses with my friends. I spent most of my childhood camping at the beach … I went fishing, horse riding and would spend all day swimming in the saltwater.”
Once she reached high school age, Nikita moved to Cairns without her parents and sisters to receive her secondary education, an experience she described as a “complete cultural shock”.
“It wasn’t easy coming from a small community,” she said. “I had to adapt to the environment and the schooling. After my dad’s shift work, he, my mum and sisters would travel to Cairns to visit me – they would buy pizza and take me to the esplanade to eat, then travel back to ‘Yarrie’ … this made me feel good since I got homesick being away from my family.”
Her studies and work have since taken her around the country – she’s completed stints in Canberra and Perth, and a little closer to home, in Cape York and Bloomfield River. She finished her law degree in 2016 at James Cook University Cairns, and was admitted the following year.
When the Mornington Island job opportunity came up, Nikita was working at the Aboriginal Legal Service in Western Australia. She knew that applying for the joint CEO/solicitor position with Junkuri Laka Inc would be her “ticket back home”, closer to her two children and extended family.
Life as the island’s only lawyer
Nikita now leads the small organisation, delivering services and programs to the remote region, while also balancing her role of providing legal assistance to the island’s residents. The scope of her legal practice is predominately wills and estate matters, QCAT guardianship applications and criminal advocacy at the monthly circuit court.
“Junkuri Laka seeks to expand programs on Mornington Island to continue to provide access to justice and legal services in one of the most remote parts of Queensland,” Nikita said. “We’re ensuring victim advocacy in the criminal justice system; that the victims’ wishes are placed before the court and that their voices are adequately represented.”
For the last two years, Nikita and her team have been involved in efforts to amend the island’s alcohol management plan. The region has had restrictions on alcohol for almost two decades, but in April saw the carriage limit alcohol licence come into effect, which Nikita says “ensures that a responsible amount of low-strength liquor can be accessed in a safe way”.
“There had been a shift to bring alcohol back to the island and the community in order to curb the devastating effects of home brew – unfiltered high-strength liquor that acts as a poison in the body,” she said. “It affected people’s health, increased domestic and family violence, and increased recidivism.
“Our submissions have been instrumental in giving an on-the-ground viewpoint on what home brew is doing to the community. I am overseeing the licence permit to make any recommendations on behalf of Junkuri Laka, which involves the licence conditions and any objections.
“The carriage limit has given the people of Mornington Island the ability to have a legal drink for the first time in years, which has led to a decrease in violence and an increase of personal liberty and self-determination. Many people in the community felt as if the old laws were condescending to Aboriginal people, and generally reflected and propagated the idea that Aboriginal people needed to be controlled by racist laws that only applied to them.”
‘Not for the faint-hearted’
Nikita enjoys carrying out her roles in a unique environment and the “privilege of learning whilst in community”. She does, however, concede that remote practice attracts its fair share of challenges, including working with service providers that are fly-in, fly-out and based in Mount Isa, Normanton, Townsville or Cairns.
“Working remotely is not for the faint-hearted,” she said. “Since I lived and grew up in community, I know what to expect. The key skills you need are resilience and understanding community politics.
“Unfortunately, the disadvantage is that I am not surrounded by like-minded people to discuss legal topics and issues daily. Another challenge is the community does not have a local library to access the internet on a computer, or to photocopy and scan documents – the internet on the island is a major issue.”
The internet access or lack thereof, combined with the island’s distance from other Queensland locations and associated travel costs, means opportunities for networking with other lawyers are few and far between; the same could be said for professional development opportunities.
Journey to Awards Gala
In spite of the obstacles, Nikita was able to make the trip to Brisbane to attend the inaugural QLS Excellence in Law Awards Gala last month, where she was named the 2022 First Nations Solicitor of the Year. She was recognised for her work in improving justice outcomes for Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and on the night was joined by 11 family members and friends.
“My mum, three sisters, my grandmother on my dad’s side, my dad’s sister and brother, my best friend, two cousins and my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service colleague Scott Sier,” Nikita said. “At first I wasn’t planning to go due to the distance, flights, and accommodation cost, but my staff and colleagues encouraged me to attend… and I’m so glad I did.
“I was surprised to run into my old land law lecturer Kate Galloway at the Gala, who came up to me after the awards and congratulated me. I admired her at university – in my first lecture she respectfully asked if I felt okay with the topics and discussion about Aboriginal people and the land, which I was amazed by and truly respected.”
Nikita Sellin, 2022 First Nations Solicitor of the Year
Going forward, Nikita is looking to grow into her line of work, and she also has some words of advice for young First Nations students considering a career in law: “Do it, give it a try, and you might surprise yourself… work out a plan for your career and aim towards it.”
Nikita would like to extend her appreciation to Sue Maggs, Laurel Devine, John Bottoms, Kate Greenway, Eileen-Deemal Hall, Johnny William, Louisa Roughsey, Marina Evans, Bob Thompson, Lorna Rogers, Lagi Seruvatau, Joneece Rowlands, Nasa Kuruduaua, Johnny Morseu, Delwyn Sellin, Barbie Sellin, Chloe Sellin, Sarah Sellin, Kwintana Sellin, Trent Sellin and Gwyneth Yeatman.