ILC and AustLII launch new online database of Indigenous legal resources | Law

ILC and AustLII launch new online database of Indigenous legal resources

The Indigenous Law Resources database, a new online collection of Indigenous legal resources, received a major update in November 2016.

The new database, which provides free access to important legal materials relating to Indigenous issues, is the result of a joint project of the Indigenous Law Centre (ILC) at UNSW Law and the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII), a joint facility of UNSW and UTS Faculties of Law.  

The database, hosted on AustLII’s website, was redeveloped in 2015 and 2016 by UNSW academics Megan Davis, Kathy Bowrey, Philip Chung, Sean Brennan and Simone Degeling.

The project was supported by two UNSW Major Research Equipment Infrastructure Initiative (MREII) Grants in 2015 and 2016.

Indigenous research and perspectives are still often neglected in mainstream library collections. A priority of the project was to collate and digitise rare, vulnerable and hard to access key material, drawing upon personal collections, key agencies and specialist libraries.

To date, the Indigenous Law Resources database has made freely available more than 1,200 documents, dating from 1768 to 2016. The collection includes parliamentary papers, government reports and policy documents affecting Indigenous peoples, as well as reports and submissions by civil society organisations and documents related to significant test cases and legal proceedings. Particularly noteworthy inclusions are previously undigitised resources relating to discrimination, intellectual property, cultural heritage, land rights and native title.

 ‘When I was a PhD student, I found it very difficult to access the foundational documents in Aboriginal affairs,’ says ILC Director, Professor Megan Davis. ‘Given that most of the significant developments in Indigenous rights have come through activism or litigation, these documents are critical to understanding Indigenous legal issues in Australia.’

Almost sixty new 19th century resources have been uploaded onto AustLII in 2016, with one of the main focuses being parliamentary papers that discuss laws and policies affecting Indigenous peoples in the so-called Killing Times era and the early Protection Era. The majority of these documents have now been made available online for the first time.

‘Especially critical to the project are those documents that over the decades capture the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,’ says Professor Davis. ‘Having those documents publicly available provides nuance and texture to what Aboriginal people want, for example in the post-1967 period up to today’s resistance to constitutional recognition.’

Documents of Indigenous civil society and representative organisations form the core of the collection. Significant inclusions are the complete collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) annual reports, as well as around 250 other ATSIC reports and speeches. The database also includes several previously undigitised documents by the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), as well as dozens of important reports and submissions by Indigenous civil society organisations.

One of the highlights of the database is a substantial collection of court materials relating to a number of significant intellectual property cases between the late 1980s and the early 21st century. In total, the database contains more than 170 digital copies of original documents relating to cases such as Yumbulul v Aboriginal Artists Agency (also known as the Morning Star Pole or Ten-Dollar Note case), Milpurrurru v Indofurn (or the Carpets case), and Bulun Bulun v Nejlam Investments (or the T-shirts case).

‘Appropriation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture was mainstream throughout the 20th century,’ says UNSW Professor Kathy Bowrey. ‘Following successful advocacy around land rights, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people started to seek redress through the courts in the 1990s. These efforts were assisted by then Northern Territory solicitor, Martin Hardie, and barrister, Colin Golvan. Donation of primary sources related to the running of a surprisingly large number of cases forms the backbone of new material concerning copyright and trademark in the collection.’

The database is also well stocked with documentation relating to discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and contains several dozen previously undigitised reports from anti-discrimination bodies and a set of six significant pastoral award cases brought before the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration (1904–1956) and the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (1956–1973). The cases, many only now available online for the first time, span more than four decades of legal argument and demonstrate the history of discrimination against Aboriginal pastoral workers and the ambivalent role of employment law in Australia.

The database also includes previously unpublished materials from the collection of Hal Wootten AC QC relating to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Land justice is another major focus of the collection, with approximately 200 documents relating to land rights and native title. ‘The Indigenous Law Resources database has become a unique resource for anyone with an interest in land rights,’ says ILC Research Director, Dr Leon Terrill. ‘It includes a thorough and accessible collection of documents about the struggle for land justice in Australia—documents such as the 1973 and 1974 Woodward reports, the 1980 report of the NSW Select Committee upon Aborigines and Paul Seaman QC’s 1984 Aboriginal Land Inquiry in Western Australia. Most of these documents were not previously available online and those that were tended to be difficult to find. It’s great that they are now all available in the one place.’

All documents in the database are full-text searchable and are available in various formats (HTML, Word, PDF). ‘Just like the other databases available on AustLII, those documents that are available in HTML format include hyperlinks to other legal resources on AustLII,’ says AustLII’s Executive Director Philip Chung. ‘This is a very useful and efficient feature, as it means users can access the legislation, cases or journal articles mentioned in any one of the documents with one simple click.’

If you would like to provide material for digitisation and inclusion in the database, please contact us at