National Reconciliation Week - 27 May to 3 June 2017 - Message from the Chief Judge

May 26, 2017

This week the County Court marks National Reconciliation Week, a celebration of indigenous history and culture in Australia and a commemoration of two great milestones in the life of our country – the 1967 referendum and the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision. 

This year National Reconciliation Week is especially significant.

On 27 May it is 50 years since over 90 percent of Australians voted in favour of giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to recognise them in the national census.

And on 3 June it is 25 years since the High Court, in Mabo, legally recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ special relationship to the land – overturning the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ and paving the way for the recognition of native title in Australian law.

The County Court recognises Indigenous Australians’ unique place in our community, and in recent years has taken important steps to provide Aboriginal offenders with improved access to fair, culturally-relevant and appropriate justice.

Indeed the County Koori Court, which was established in Melbourne and the Latrobe Valley in July 2013 following a four year pilot, was the first sentencing court for Aboriginal offenders in a higher jurisdiction in Australia.

On 19 August last year I was very proud to join with judges, magistrates, Aboriginal Elders and Respected Persons, the Parliamentary Secretary for Justice and members of the local community to mark the expansion of the County Koori Court to Mildura.

As I said at the launch, establishing the Koori Court in Mildura was a significant day in the life of the County Court, but also an important step in helping improve justice outcomes for the Aboriginal community.

In the period ahead, thanks to new funding from the State Government, the County Koori Court will continue to expand, further improving Aboriginal Victorians’ engagement with, and participation in the justice system.

Aboriginal offenders often come to the Court from a position of profound disadvantage. Significant efforts are therefore made to deepen judges’ understanding of Aboriginal culture and history – including, recently, by way of a Koori Court Elders’ Conference at the County Court, and also through the Judicial College of Victoria, which again this year offered a fascinating and important ‘Back to Country’ immersion experience for judges and magistrates.

Efforts are also made to improve community understanding, including just last week when a Mock County Koori Court ‘plea hearing’ was staged at the Court as part of Victorian Law Week. As part of the mock ‘guilty plea’, a judge, lawyers and community members acted out the roles of the protagonists in a typical Koori Court case – shining a light both on the unique nature of a Koori Court, and on the complex issues all parties to these proceedings face.

The County Court has a dedicated judge-in-charge of the County Koori Court, Judge Paul Grant. Judge Grant is supported by Terrie Stewart, the County Koori Court Coordinator, and recently the Court has employed a County Koori Court Officer, Micah Roe, to help with the running of the Koori Court.

The theme for National Reconciliation Week in 2017 is ‘Let’s take the next steps’. Indeed this is firmly the County Court’s plan for the next 12 months. 

I encourage you to find out more about the week at www.reconciliation.org.au