Growing up in nipaluna (Hobart), Palawa woman Maggie Blanden was all too aware of the injustices Indigenous people face in Australia’s legal system. Everywhere she looked, she saw a disproportionate number of Indigenous people cycling through prisons and knew there must be a way she could work within the justice system to better protect them.
“I have grown up in a world where the legal system is structured against my people,” she said. “This is illustrated by the mere fact that Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated peoples in the world.”
Maggie’s passion led her to her current degree at Melbourne Law School (MLS) as a Juris Doctor (JD) student and remains the driving force behind her decision to become one of the growing number of Indigenous voices in the legal system.
“Our people deserve the best representation they can get,” she said.
“We need diversity in the legal system to ensure that all voices are heard and empowered. This is what has motivated me to undertake my law studies. Without this, there is a danger that white lawyers are unable to fully comprehend the needs and experiences of their clients, in ways that Indigenous lawyers can.”
Support for Indigenous students critical
Maggie says she is within reach of her goal thanks to the support she has received through the MLS Indigenous Student Scholarship and the Robin Chan Memorial Grant.
There are currently several scholarships on offer for Indigenous students to pursue their studies at MLS, with growing support increasing that number by 50 per cent in the past year.
“With this scholarship, I am able to give my full attention to my JD studies and work towards graduating this year. This allows me to finish earlier than expected and provides me with the opportunity to immerse myself in the work sphere.”
Without the support, Maggie couldn’t have made it through her JD studies on her own terms, with casual employment and other obstacles hindering her progress and resolve.
"Like many of my peers, it is difficult to balance work and university, and so this scholarship allows me to continue my degree, without concerns of financial strain," said Maggie.
Scholarships are a crucial mechanism that support Indigenous students to complete their degree in their best capacity. Maggie Blanden
Additionally, Maggie has been afforded the time to take up mentoring opportunities with Indigenous staff members at MLS, which has ultimately helped her stay focused on her goal of becoming a voice for First Nations people in the legal system.
“Indigenous students, unlike their peers, face many intersecting barriers in their study. It is crucial for Indigenous students to be supported and mentored throughout their degree.
"There is, sadly, an extremely high rate of students who withdraw from their studies, due to various factors that obstruct them from immersing themselves entirely in their studies,” said Maggie.
Practical experience the key to learning
In 2023, Maggie landed a coveted position at the Indigenous Law and Justice Hub (ILJH) as a Research Assistant. Formed through MLS to work on issues impacting First Nations peoples, with particular focus on criminal law and Treaty, the ILJH is directed by Dr Eddie Cubillo.
“I agreed to come to MLS because I saw an opportunity to push for change and shape the thinking of future leaders in the profession,” Dr Cubillo has said.
“I have seen first-hand the positive impacts of Indigenous decision-making on test cases in the 1990s, and this experience was a long-overdue return of these better practices around foregrounding Indigenous values in our litigation practices.”
He added: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in law join institutions which long excluded them – and the absence of their voices in building the cultures of these places is felt today.”
Maggie’s position at the ILJH is within its Law and Advocacy Program. Dr Cubillo said the program is growing in popularity and provides practical work experience under the guidance of mentors.
The program is an opportunity for students to get involved in the Hub’s advocacy work as paid Research Assistants, and to learn alongside our experienced advocates and partner organisations. Dr Eddie Cubillo
For Maggie, the experience has been life changing and has helped cement the direction she wants her future to take.
“I hope to work in the area of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, as well as criminal justice for our people. I am aiming to work on important areas, including Treaty and criminal justice reform, which has been fostered by my work with the ILJH,” she said.
“I have learned a lot under the leadership and guidance of Dr Cubillo and [Research Fellow] Jaynaya Dwyer. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity the role has provided to get practical experience in this area. Also, it allows students with passions outside of commercial and settler law to learn alongside their JD degrees.”
A highlight of her time working in the Law and Advocacy Program was travelling to New Zealand to attend a conference.
“We were fortunate enough to attend a world-renowned conference, the Constitutional Kōrero, where we witnessed inspirational Indigenous academics and legal experts talk about their experiences of sovereignty, self-determination and Indigenous empowerment.
“I walked away from this trip feeling inspired and empowered to continue with my studies. I am eternally grateful for the support I have received from my scholarship donors.”