Geelong Senior Lawyer John Cattanach has always wanted to be part of positive change for First Nations peoples.
He says closer ties between Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and the local Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative to support First Nations people with legal needs – a model being replicated across other regional offices – is helping him achieve that goal.
He and Aboriginal Community Engagement Officer Belinda Foley are both based in our Geelong office on Wadawurrung Country and regularly receive referrals through the co-operative in a partnership they established in March last year.
The co-operative is a holistic service that provides health, family, community and cultural services to First Nations peoples in the Geelong, Bellarine and Colac region.
The partnership with VLA links First Nations peoples to early support from Belinda and John to prevent escalating legal issues, as well a culturally sensitive service that responds to their individual needs.
John is a Marrithiyel man whose mob is located five hours southwest of Darwin, and Belinda is a Central Arrernte woman on her mother’s side (Alice Springs). Both grew up in community (Wadawurrung Country).
Their background is crucial for the important work they undertake through the co-operative.
Contributing to satisfying outcomes for First Nations peoples
John and Belinda are proud of what the partnership has achieved.
A young man with intellectual disability was referred to us by Wathaurong and faced serious criminal charges.
‘His court date was six months away, he had been offered diversion for the charges and based on advice from a non-legal person, he was going to accept the diversion,’ said Belinda.
‘However, once we reviewed the brief, we advised the client he had a defence, and that John was going to work towards getting his matter withdrawn. This also gave me a chance to make sure he was linked in with Wathaurong and other supports.
‘After a lengthy summary case conference, John was able to get the charges withdrawn well ahead of the young man’s court date.’
Another client from Wathaurong had a number of matters listed on various dates, and was struggling with a range of issues.
She had disengaged with all services (including Wathaurong), was homeless, had ongoing alcohol and drug issues, her Centrelink payments had ceased and she had no contact with her children, who were living in out-of-home care.
Once again, Belinda and John worked as a well-oiled team to represent their client.
While John was taking care of the legal matter in the background, Belinda addressed the non-legal issues, and was able to connect the mother with services provided by Wathaurong, the Salvation Army, Centrelink and Child Protection.
‘Once these issues were addressed, we booked the matter into the Koori Court,’ said John.
‘Our client subsequently took ownership of her actions and the magistrate deferred sentence pending a number of further goals they hoped our client would achieve.
‘Belinda was able to support the client in achieving those goals, including working with Child Protection so that the mother could reengage with her child.
‘This was a great outcome, and after our intervention, there has been no further offending, the mother is seeing her child and our client has reengaged with all services, and is achieving her goals,’ he said.
Satisfying a pressing service need
John and Belinda said the creation of the Wathaurong Clinic serviced a clear need.
‘However, there is a clear service gap for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, as services often do not understand the complexities of working with First Nation people, and often aren’t able to provide a culturally safe service.
‘Our clinic service is designed to be responsive to any legal matter referred to us, and provide our client a full legal check-up before they appear in court.
‘For example, if our client presents for a parking fine, we can do a legal health check and see if they have any outstanding fines, or are in trouble for any other legal matter,’ he said.
Belinda and John say the clinic provides First Nations peoples with a culturally safe location to meet, access to appropriate support referrals if required and importantly, makes them feel at ease.
‘This partnership is unique because our community can engage with an Aboriginal lawyer and Aboriginal community engagement officer, who both grew up on Country,’ said John.
‘We not only understand what it means to be Aboriginal, but we feel the distrust, the hurt and the pain our community has suffered as a result of past and current systemic issues.
‘Our service is a small, yet valuable step in breaking down barriers, and ensuring access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,’ he said.
Supporting reconciliation and self-determination
‘By strengthening our relationship with the Aboriginal community and organisations who deliver services to that community, the clinic has provided opportunities for our non-First Nations staff to engage with our Indigenous community, and further develop their cultural knowledge and skills,’ Belinda said.
‘The clinic is also an excellent example of self-determination given both John and I grew up locally, and have strong ties to the community.’
Satisfying work at the coalface of need
In addition to providing practical assistance to First Nations peoples, John and Belinda derive great satisfaction from being connected to their community.
‘Growing up, I saw firsthand how our mob is treated by police, and I knew I wanted to be a part of the change and the healing,’ said John.
‘From a legal standpoint, I am a lawyer who seeks to keep police accountable, and achieve the best outcomes for our mob. And from a First Nations perspective, I’m here to help Indigenous clients who present with a broken or wonky spirit, and help nurture that spirit so it becomes strong once again.’
Belinda is also proud of the difference the clinic has made in the community and to the Wathaurong Aboriginal Cooperative.
‘I’m delighted that this clinic has been able to provide a service to more than 100 clients in under 12 months,’ she said.
‘It has given our First Nations community a safe environment, passed our knowledge to the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative to use in their service delivery and provided comfort to First Nations peoples in that they know a specialist legal service is available to support them.
Reviewed 23 May 2023