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Spotlight on justice for Reconciliation Week

29 May 2020

Ashley Morris and Magistrate Kaye Macpherson

Last month Ashley Morris, the Children’s Court Manger for Koori Services and Programs, joined 3CR’s community radio program Done By Law to discuss Marram-Ngala Ganbu. The interview was aired during Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June).

In June 2020 the 3CR community radio program Done by Law interviewed the Children’s Court Manager for Koori Services and Programs Ashley Morris. The interview was broadcast during Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June) and canvassed the Koori Family Hearing Day known as Marram-Ngala Ganbu; and how the Children’s Court approach to serving Aboriginal court-users has evolved over time.  

The following summary is extracted from Ashley’s radio interview with Ria Jago: 

What is Marram-Ngala Ganbu? 

The words Marram-Ngala Ganbu translate to mean “we are one” in the Woiwurrung language. It is also the name of the Children’s Court Koori Family Hearing Day.

“Marram Ngala Ganbu is a culturally appropriate process that Aboriginal families with matters in the child protection division of the Children’s Court,” Ashley says.

“So basically, court done in a way that suits the needs of Aboriginal people coming through the door.”

Why and how was the Koori Family Hearing Day established? 

Despite a series of reports and inquiries which proposed a raft of recommendations to, as Ashley says, “stop the hurt and stop the intergenerational trauma” of the Indigenous community, it was not until the late 1990s that the states and territories came together to discuss an Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA)

“In Victoria, we have the AJA which is there to monitor and implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–1991) [and] to address the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system,” Ashley says.

The Victorian Government entered into the AJA with the Victorian Koori community in 1999 and fast forward to today, we have a large number of programs aimed at reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people involved in the justice system.”

The AJA is governed by the Aboriginal Justice Forum, which is where the heads of jurisdictions in government meet with community to discuss justice outcomes. In 2002, the Shepparton Koori Courts were established as a result of the work of the Aboriginal Justice Forum.

“What the Koori Courts are is a sentencing court for Aboriginal accused in the Criminal Division of the Magistrates’ Court. Part of that process is having Aboriginal Elders and respected persons sit for the sentencing conversation to provide cultural advice to the Magistrate and the Courts but also to support the accused going through court,” Ashley explains.

In 2009 an Aboriginal Justice Forum convened in Geelong determined that a Koori Court for child protection was a worthwhile initiative. Then, in 2012, an inquiry into Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children published a report. The report made a direct recommendation that the Children’s consider establishing its own Koori Hearing Day or a Koori Court – a culturally appropriate process for Aboriginal families – in the Family Division.

“Fast forward to 2014-15 and a new Children’s Court was built in Broadmeadows next door to the old Magistrates’ Court. The idea was to try new things – it was a court of innovation – they wanted to try new things in the family division to get better outcomes for the whole community,” Ashley says.

“Attached to that there was funding to try new initiatives and one of those was the Koori Hearing Day.”

What does MNG or the Koori Family Hearing Day look like? 

The physical environment of the court is completely different to what a mainstream court would be,” Ashley says.

“What we’ve tried to do a Broadmeadows is to bring down the stress of being in an intimidating building.”

Ashley speaks about the significance of paintings by local artists and young people of the community on the courtroom walls as part of what makes the Koori Court in Broadmeadows welcoming. There is also a special possum skin cloak that sits at the centre of the bar table in court that was designed and created by about 80 Aboriginal children over a long weekend.

“Historically bar tables are a big square table where the lawyers stand and make their submissions. In Marram-Nagla Ganbu, everyone sits at an oval bar table and has a conversation. It’s not intimidating but it sets the scene that this is serious business and we need to not forget that this is about children and keeping them safe,” Ashley says.

“On top of that big bar table, we have a possum skin cloak in the middle. And what that reminds everyone of is these children have a connection that we need to maintain in any decision of this Court at this bar table. So it’s quite powerful.

“When things don’t quite go to plan or are quite emotional, you’ll watch the children, young people and their families – they’ll put their hands in that cloak and it just calms the feeling.”

How does the Family Court Hearing Day work? 

Having a dedicated Koori Support Officer at Broadmeadows is an important way to support Aboriginal court-users, Ashley explains.

“Her role is to support people through the day so that they understand what is going on with court and know they have a voice – either through the lawyer or, if you’re self-representing, that you can have your say,” he says.

“We’re kind of like family networking – we make sure the right people are in the room at the right time to make sure that the magistrate or the decision-maker has all the information that they need.

“There has been a number of times in MNG when extended family members have told the court what the support structures look like at home, which generally is enough to keep the children safe and protected,” Ashley adds.

One of the most effective things about MNG is that it gives families who appear before it a more meaningful sense that they are contributing to the outcome. Part of that process means listening carefully to the immediate and extended families of young people.

“You can’t force people to change but you can bring them along the journey to change. And that’s what we do at Broadmeadows,” Ashley says.

Follow this link to hear Ashley Morris’ interview with 3CR community radio

Photo caption: L-R: Ashley Morris and Magistrate Kaye Macpherson (photo courtesy Simon Winter)