Editor’s Note: Each summer Penn Law students hone their skills through a wide array of private and public sector internships across the country and around the world. Generous financial support and fellowships for international and public interest work enable students to pursue diverse assignments in the U.S. and abroad. This dispatch from Catherine Eagan L’16 is one in a series of firsthand accounts by Law School students about how their summer employment opportunities are preparing them for their legal careers. Eagan, from New Jersey, will be pursuing public defender or civil rights litigation work after graduation.
Spending the summer at the North Australian Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Service has been challenging and rewarding in ways that I could not have imagined back at home. Located in Darwin in the Northern Territory, NAAFVLS is part of a government-funded network of law offices that provides legal resources for victims of domestic violence in remote communities. Staff often fly in four-seater planes or drive through rivers in outback-outfitted vehicles in order to reach clients.
The first week was disorienting, as I came to appreciate the many challenges that attorneys face each day. Aboriginal society may be the oldest on earth and is incredibly diverse, creating a demand for intricate cultural awareness. It is crucial to gain the trust of traditional landowners and elders. Each community has a unique language and complex kinship network, making the intersection between traditional law and government-imposed law a tenuous one. There can also be a lack of trust of outsiders, caused by centuries of oppression and forced assimilation.
Most of my time in the office is spent conducting legal research, preparing court documents, and following up with clients (which is often done through an interpreter). However, virtually nothing in the Northern Territory is straightforward, especially when working with remote clients. We often have to argue for procedural rules to be relaxed, as we are frequently hard-pressed to efficiently contact clients and submit documents on time. I have worked on crafting arguments combining case law and common law principles of fairness in the hopes of allowing our clients to appear in the Bush Court, where magistrates set up makeshift court rooms in community police stations. The research has come easy to me after my first year at Penn, and it is exciting to put this training to use in a unique way.
The types of cases that we handle are difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Rates of domestic violence are startling high in the Aboriginal population, much of which is not spoken of due to shame and stigma. It feels like we are working undercover in communities in order to speak privately to victims and find out who needs assistance. Though I had only a cursory understanding of Aboriginal culture before coming to Australia, the year that I spent working with the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic at Penn made communicating with clients much more comfortable. In communities, I am often left sitting beneath trees with clients to conduct intakes. I was able to approach this task with sensitivity and confidence after the extensive client contact that I had with CASAC.
I applied for an ISHRF fellowship because I believe that we learn the most when we are forced to adapt in unfamiliar situations. This has certainly been the case at NAAFVLS, which has both pushed and reinforced the skills that I have learned at Penn.