When Kathleen Cunningham and Abigail Widijanto arrived in Western Australia earlier this year to begin their internships at the Kimberley Community Legal Service (KCLS), both knew they were in for a transformative experience.
However, nothing quite prepared The Australian National University (ANU) law students for the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a really different experience due to COVID-19, but also a really valuable one because of the way we’ve been able to get involved. People have shown an incredible level of community-mindedness,” said Kathleen, a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) student who interned at the KCLS Broome office.
“The ability to adapt in our delivery of services has been really impressive. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a lawyer when I came here, and now I feel like I definitely do.”
A thousand kilometres away at the KCLS Kununurra office, Abigail found herself in a similar situation. Between February and May, she carried out paralegal work using creative methods including an “improvised intercom system” – a baby monitor that allows clients to communicate with staff from a safe distance.
“I had five weeks or so where everything was normal and then the lockdown hit the Kimberley,” said Abigail, a final-year Juris Doctor student.
“We can’t do outreach trips or home visits, so we have no idea how our clients are going in more remote communities. Having our office doors closed means clients can’t just come in with their legal matters.”
The Kimberley is one of Australia's remotest regions, spanning an area of more than 420,000 square kilometres. Image Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)
Founded in 1999 with one solicitor, KCLS is an independent, not-for-profit legal service that provides free legal, financial counselling and tenancy services. It services one of Australia’s most remote regions – approximately twice the size of Victoria – and its clients, more than 80 per cent of whom are Aboriginal, consult with KCLS staff both at its offices and through home and community visits.
In 2017, the ANU College of Law partnered with KCLS by setting up a Canberra-based hotdesk. The initiative allows students to gain practical legal experience by carrying out research and preparing submissions and case materials.
In addition to the ANU students’ countless pro bono hours, support from financial donors has been vital to ensuring KCLS continues its important work during the pandemic. One of those donors is Chris Marks, who was introduced to KCLS via former ANU Chancellor, Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, FASSA, FAIIA.
Mr Marks notes his father, Lionel, “always had an affinity with Aboriginal communities” going back to his travels decades ago driving from Adelaide to Darwin.
“He had black-and-white photos of children happy in billabongs, and he assisted in the birth of babies, He had a real love for that experience,” recalls Mr Marks.
Through the course of family holidays between Broome and Kununurra, Mr Marks’ own firsthand experience of the Kimberley illuminated some of the hardships and discrimination faced by Aboriginal people.
“I’ve always had a frustration with the lack of knowledge and acknowledgement of the Indigenous people’s history and contribution to our country. KCLS is an important initiative because it addresses the discrimination that affects Indigenous health, well-being and opportunity,” he says.