Experiencing the Walama List court model as a First Nations law student


By Jai McGaw

In August 2023, I had the privilege of visiting the Downing Centre alongside my fellow Community Legal Centres NSW First Nations Cadets, Aimee and Keely. During our visit, we were given an inside look into both the local and district courts, as well as the recently established Walama List.

The Downing Centre is home to a multitude of different service providers, who each aim to assist different demographics in distinct ways. During our visit, we were given the opportunity to meet several of these service providers and gain a better understanding of their roles within the sector. Some of which were the Aboriginal Services Unit, the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, and the Aboriginal Legal Service. 

In between our interviews with these dedicated service providers, we were given several opportunities to observe court proceedings firsthand. This was my first time seeing the inside of a court room, and it certainly left an impression on me. The differences in conduct and approach were immediately apparent between the district court and the local court. The local court proceedings were characterised by a notably faster pace, managing to address multiple cases within just half an hour. In contrast, the district court saw more lengthy proceedings, with the closing arguments from a single barrister taking significantly longer. The tone of the district court proceedings resembled that of a formal presentation directed towards the jury, whereas the local court embraced a slightly more informal and conversational approach. While these differences might seem obvious, the opportunity to witness both courts in action greatly deepened my understanding of the diverse processes at play.

The most significant differences emerged during our observation of the Walama List, however. For me, this was the highlight of our visit, as it revealed a side of the legal system that I had not seen before. A side that is noticeably more human-centric, focusing less on efficiency, and more on changing the lives of offenders for the better.  

In stark departure from the proceedings of the district and local courts, the Walama List adopted an entirely unique approach. Instead of the customary image of a judge presiding from an elevated bench, they were seated at a round table alongside the accused with the sleeves of their dress-shirt rolled up. This setup fostered open dialogue and participation from various individuals, including caseworkers, elders, and the accused themselves.

These sessions transcended the traditional boundaries of legal proceedings, taking on the character of genuine conversations. By diverging from the formalities observed in other court settings, the offender feels seen and heard. They are not perceived solely through the lens of criminality, rather, they are viewed as possessing the potential for change. 

The central goal of the Walama List is to reduce the rates of reoffending among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander offenders, while also mitigating their disproportionate representation within the criminal justice system. While admission of guilt is a prerequisite for an offender to be referred to the Walama List, the process assures a significantly higher degree of cultural sensitivity. Not only are these proceedings more culturally appropriate, but they are also therapeutic in nature, aimed at pushing the offender toward a path of positive transformation. We saw a local elder speak from the heart, having something profound to say about the future of each of the accused.  

Within the framework of the Walama List, the offender engages in monthly sessions with a judge, elders, and a rotating group of caseworkers, counsellors, community corrections officers, and lawyers. This iterative process can take up to 12 months, during which a tailored case plan is collaboratively created, finalised, and adhered to. The primary objective of these meetings is to ensure measurable progress in the offender's rehabilitation journey. The judge serves as a facilitator, overseeing their development on a month-to-month basis. This progress is subsequently factored into the eventual sentencing decision. By meeting with the offender monthly, an undeniable connection is formed. We saw the power of this connection during one of the meetings, when a speech from an elder brought both the Judge and the offender to tears. 

Witnessing the Walama List in action filled me with a sense of optimism regarding the future of the justice system. It raised questions about the potential applicability of similar methods in other areas of the legal system. There are of course questions of feasibility in extending the principles of the Walama List to other courts. Scheduling regular meetings with an offender over the course of 12 months would undoubtedly strain the resources of the court. Monthly interactions with the offender, delving into their personal experiences on a subjective level, could complicate the application of the law objectively during the eventual hearing. 

However, I anticipate that we will see the success of the Walama List in the coming years, with the rates of reoffending and overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system dropping significantly. After which, it will be impossible to deny the efficacy of a human-centric approach to justice. Considering this, one may then question the reasons for adhering to the principles of a justice system that promptly cycles offenders in and out of prison.

Our trip to the Downing Centre was as exciting as it was educational. We are grateful for Community Legal Centres NSW’s First Nations Cadetship Administrator Bobbi Murray, who organised the day out, and we continue to look forward to our court visits.