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Taking instructions from Aboriginal people

Information to help understand cultural differences in communication styles between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.

There are differences in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people communicate that relate to pragmatics, linguistics and non-verbal communication. When speaking with Aboriginal people it is important to:

Make contact as soon as possible

Face-to face contact is best, especially when taking instructions. The lawyer should get in touch as soon as possible and at least within 1 week of the client entering custody. Do not wait for a brief.

Spend time

Taking time to relate to the Aboriginal person is vital. Have a chat with the person, asking indirect rather than direct questions. Tell them something about yourself, where you came from, whether you have kids or not, show yourself as a person not just a lawyer. Give the relationship time to build.

Put your phone number on the client's telephone list so that they can have unlimited calls to you.

Use an interpersonal not an impersonal approach. Show and interest in where the client is from and if possible connection with the client in relation to common experiences or knowledge. For example, 'I am also from Ballarat' or 'Yes, I have met Tom'.

Don't be worried about silence. Long periods of silence do not mean that communication has broken down.

Check for understanding

Don't use legalese. Do not be condescending. Carefully explain any legal terms that you use if your think that these are terms they might hear at court or in prison.

Be mindful that an Aboriginal person may nod and seem to agree with you when really they don't understand. Chat with them, engage in conversation and get them to explain what you have said in their own words. This will help you to pick up gaps in their knowledge.

Make sure you give the person the opportunity to ask questions.

Explain what might happen and when

Give the Aboriginal person time frames, explain when things are likely to happen as well as when. Don't make promises that you can't keep. You have just got one chance to gain and hold the person's trust and respect. If you lose their trust you will find it almost impossible to regain it.

Take the time to explain carefully the situation they are in, what may lie ahead and what options they have. Do this slowly and thoroughly, checking for their understanding by getting them to explain back to you have said in their own words to check that they really understand.

Does the person have other issues?

Do some holistic lawyering and be in the lookout for other issues that the person may face, such as wanting contact with kids, debt or homelessness.

Many Aboriginal people have complex needs such as mental health issues or acquired brain injury. Many legal and non-legal needs remain undiagnosed while people are in the prison system. Sometimes spending time with the client will enable you to flag potential issues that may be addressed while the person is in prison to reduce the likelihood that they will return to prison after release.

Spending time may help to alert lawyer to what else is going on for the aboriginal person.

If a death is relevant

Ask if it is appropriate to name or show a visual image of someone who has passed away.

Consider kinship terms

Be aware of linguistics when it comes to kinship terms. 'Aunty' and 'Uncle' are used widely among Aboriginal people as terms of respect. Also Aboriginal people have different kinship associations. The relationships with extended family are much stronger than is common in other Australian cultures.

See Compassionate leave.

More information

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