A pilot in June 1999 of the special interest court became known as the ‘Nunga Court’, the regional Aboriginal name given to it by the local Aboriginal community. Australia's first Aboriginal Sentencing Court, the Nunga Court, was the initiative of Mr Chris Vass SM, who presided for many years on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands and prior to working with the Courts as a Magistrate, Mr Vass spent many years working with the Indigenous people of Papua New Guinea.
The Nunga Court sits monthly in Port Adelaide Magistrates Court, with Aboriginal Sentencing Courts operating monthly in Port Augusta Magistrates Court, and every second month in Murray Bridge Court.
Aboriginal Sentencing Courts are presided over by a Magistrate, who is assisted by Aboriginal Elders and/or Respected Persons. As they are sentencing courts, they do not hear trials or contested matters. Aboriginal Sentencing Courts provide an opportunity for Aboriginal court users to have their voice heard in a culturally appropriate manner, and family members and support persons are encouraged to attend and speak directly to the court.
To attend an Aboriginal Sentencing Court, the court user must be an Aboriginal adult, who has pleaded guilty to their offences. The offences need to have occurred in the local Aboriginal court area.
Aboriginal Justice Officers (AJOs) provide information about the location and operation of the courts, as well as support to Aboriginal court users and their families. AJOs also provide advice to Magistrates and the court generally regarding appropriate services and programs that may assist in the court user’s rehabilitation.
Aboriginal Sentencing Conferences are legislated under Section 9C of the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act 1988. In 2005, the Act was amended to include “Section 9C – Sentencing of Aboriginal defendants”.
Section 9C Aboriginal Sentencing Conferences empowers a court in any criminal jurisdiction to convene an Aboriginal Sentencing Conference. Aboriginal Sentencing Conferences usually take place in a conference room (not a courtroom). Every participant has a chance to have their say around a table. Aboriginal defendants are encouraged to explain the background to their offending. Aboriginal Elders attend and are very important participants, as they can advise the court and defendant. Conferences also give defendants an opportunity to face victims and apologise for their actions.
Aboriginal Justice Officers provide assistance and support in convening a conference, particularly arranging for suitable elders and representatives from appropriate rehabilitation programs, whilst also making contact with defendant’s family to explain the conference process.
Aboriginal Sentencing Conferences enable participants to share information in a more culturally appropriate forum, which the Judge or Magistrate can consider when sentencing.
The Port Lincoln Aboriginal Sentencing Conference is a joint initiative between the Conferencing Unit and Aboriginal Programs. See the Conferencing Unit section for further information.