Increasing call for specialists in Native Title

JUST as environmental issues work became significant during the 1980s, for legal firms, the volume of Native Title and Aboriginal heritage work has increased significantly since the mid-90s.

While a lot of the earlier work involved litigation, Perth practitioners say there has been a dramatic growth in the demand for agreement and negotiation work in the past three years.

The amount of work available in the land claim determination process has been described as ‘significant’ by one practitioner, but it remains a specialised area and the message coming from a number of firms is that there are not a lot of people in Perth with the experience and expertise to do it.

John Wanati, of Wanati Consulting says that, with very few truly experienced Native Title lawyers in Perth, increasingly the larger companies and interest groups tend to shop around for appropriate services to liaise between private companies, individual groups, legal practitioners and land councils.

One boutique firm offers ongoing specialist services in Native Title and heritage work, and a significant proportion of the major firms operating in Perth have at least one specialist practitioner.

The industry view is that it is worthwhile attracting a specialist within each firm, as those who only dabble in this type of work from time to time find it difficult to remain abreast of issues and developments.

And smaller firms have found it difficult to manage resources when a large mediation or litigation job requires long periods of absence.

National firm Blake Dawson Waldron maintains a comparatively large Native Title staff component within its projects and resources group, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia, but also has specialists in both New South Wales and Victoria.

Movement by partners between firms has become the norm in recent years and this phenomenon, plus takeover activity, has begun to impact on the share of native title work in the State.

A Jackson McDonald partner moved to Blake Dawson Waldron in the last quarter of last year, transferring with him a significant portfolio of Native Title work on behalf of pastoral interests in the Laverton area.

Other Hamersley Iron/Rio Tinto work also has moved in the same direction, and the proposed takeover of Robe River Mining by Hamersley Iron may mean some of Robe’s work may move from the one provider.

With Native Title and heritage work considered a growth area and an important part of the firm’s commercial income, a Jackson McDonald spokesperson says the firm is looking to appoint a new partner in this field.

Specialist law firm Hunt & Humphry partner Chris Humphry says the substance of work has not changed since the firm was established six years ago, but the market has evolved and matured so that agreements are taking on a much more familiar format.

Aboriginal groups have become better organised and equipped for negotiation, while larger resource companies, which account for the bulk of Native Title and heritage negotiations in WA, have become more self-sufficient and now perform much of the initial process work in-house.

But while the basic processes are mainly understood, plenty of players are awaiting the outcome of the Mirruwung Gajerrong case. A ruling in this case is expected to deliver greater certainty to procedures and has the potential to prompt changes to the Commonwealth Native Title Act.

Some, however, doubt the speed at which the Federal Government would be willing to attempt legislative changes, given the current

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