Landmark for Indigenous voice in law

Landmark for Indigenous voice in law

28 November 2017
Sydney Law School researcher receives $678,000 grant

Dr Nicole Watson will use an Australian Research Council grant to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices into judgments and celebrate their contributions to the development of Australian law.

Dr Watson, who is also the Associate Dean (Indigenous), was awarded the University’s only Discovery Indigenous grant.

She will work with Professor Heather Douglas from the University of Queensland and Dr Asmi Wood from the Australian National University to write judgments so they are inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s voices and histories.

“I was inspired by the Feminist Judgments Project, which involved rewriting well-known cases from a feminist perspective,” she says.

“The project began in Canada and has also been undertaken in the UK and Australia. I was very lucky to be involved in the Australian project, rewriting a judgment from a criminal case from Central Australia in the 1930s.”

Bringing Indigenous Voices into Judicial Decision-Making will extend methodologies created by international and Australian scholars for correcting the absence of women’s voices. The project, which has received funding for three years, will focus on producing the missing Indigenous judgment in 20 decisions of Australian superior courts over the course of the 20th century.

“I hope that my University of Sydney colleagues and our students will also be involved in rewriting the judgments,”Dr Watson says. The other component of the project will explore the gulf between judge-made law and the lived experience of Indigenous litigants through an in-depth examination of four test cases from Queensland.

“In the 1980s and 1990s Indigenous people, particularly in Queensland, began using the law as a tool of resistance,” she says. “We plan to examine the histories that preceded four of the test cases. We will be interviewing litigants and their legal representatives to discover how they were able to mobilise resources for the cases, and what the lasting impacts of the litigation have been for their communities.” The project will:

build a new relationship between Australian judges and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and be an original contribution to Australia’s jurisprudence on them and the law.

“We are especially pleased to see Dr Nicole Watson’s project funded, because of the great contribution this will make to thoughtful scholarship in Indigenous legal issues in Australia,” says Sydney Law School Dean, Professor Joellen Riley.

Sydney Law School researchers Professor Cameron Stewart, Professor Tim Stephens and Associate Professor Arlie Loughnan were also part of three successful project teams to receive ARC funding, which was announced in November 2017. The projects include: reforming the regulatory environment for innovative health technologies; creating a unique open access database on Antarctic law and governance; and building a free access ‘Foundations of Common Law Library’.