Five things you should know about the Mabo decision

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the historic 1992 Mabo decision

Commemorated each year on 3 June, Mabo Day recognises the succesful efforts of Eddie Koiki Mabo in overturning the legal fiction of terra nullius, or 'land belonging to no-one'.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the historic Mabo case, when on 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia decided that terra nullius should not have been applied to Australia. This decision – known as the Mabo decision – recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land – rights that existed before the British arrived and can still exist today.

The Mabo decision was a turning point for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights, because it acknowledged their unique connection with the land. It also led to the Australian Parliament passing the Native Title Act in 1993.

We take a look at some of the key facts from this significant milestone in our history.

1. Terra nullius nullified

Until 1992, land laws claimed that Australia was terra nullius or ‘land belonging to no one’. Effectively, these laws denied the fact that Indigenous peoples had prior occupation and connection to the land.

2. The man behind the fight

The Mabo decision was named after Torres Strait Islander Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo who led the fight to change land laws to recognise Indigenous connection and traditional ownership of land in Australia. He worked on the Mabo case for 10 years, but unfortunately passed away just months before he could learn the High Court’s decision on his legal battle.

3. Our alumni played a role

Three University of Sydney law alumni were members of the High Court of Australia which made this decision: Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC, Mary Gaudron, QC (first female Justice of the High Court of Australia) and Sir Anthony Mason, AC, KBE, QC, who was Chief Justice at the time.

4. Creation of the Native Title Act

The 1992 Mabo decision led to the Native Title Act (1993) which created a framework that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to, and interests in, certain land because of their traditional laws and customs. It allows access to land for living, traditional purposes, hunting or fishing and/or to teach laws and customs on the land.

5. Recognition of land ownership today

Today, native title has been recognised over more than one million square kilometres of Australian land and water (approximately 15% of Australian territorial land and waters). There are currently 629 registered Indigenous Land Use Agreements – a voluntary agreement between a native title group and others about the use of land and waters – in place.

This story was updated on 31 May 2022

2 June 2017

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