Aboriginal guardian follows his passion

ABORIGINAL legal aid solicitor Arjun Chhabra is leaving Orange after two years but will continue to pursue his passion of representing the indigenous community in Sydney and Wollongong.

In many ways Mr Chhabra sees himself as the guardian of the rights of Aboriginal people who are over-represented in the court system.

He says he has no qualms about representing people who committed serious or violent crimes, seeing his role as ensuring everyone is treated equally under the law.

“Every person has rights in our society and my role is to make sure every client of mine has the full benefit of these rights,” he said.

“These rights need to be jealously protected.”

After graduating in law from Sydney University Mr Chhabra was originally a corporation lawyer working in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, but he says he was always driven by a yearning to develop his skills in criminal litigation.

After following advice from a legal colleague to seek a role with the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service in a regional area, he says his time in Orange has been rewarding and he has benefited from what he says is a supportive legal fraternity in Orange and Bathurst.

“I have learned a lot from the legal profession in Orange and Bathurst and have been fortunate to have some excellent mentors in Dubbo and Sydney as well,” he said.

“I see myself now continuing to work for legal aid - it is what I really want to do.”

Mr Chhabra said his grounding and strong work ethic comes from his parents who left Burma during the military coup to make a new life in Australia, where he was born.

His passion for the court system is born out of a firm belief the Westminster system used in courtrooms across Australia and modelled on the British justice system is the best in the world.

“The courtroom becomes the crucible to determine the real issues and we work under a fantastic system,” he said.

He believes separating himself from personal feelings when representing clients comes easily to him.

“It is not about my personal feelings and my role is to do the best I can to represent my client and not cast judgement,” he said.

“Its about determining the liability of the offence and testing the evidence of the witness.”

Mr Chhabra said he is inspired to continue working for legal aid saying the judicial system now takes a ‘wide lens’ approach to Aboriginal people coming before the courts.

He says he has seen many judicial officers make huge efforts to support Aboriginal people seeking bail through the courts by finding a role model or support person.

“In Orange and at other courts it is now well recognised that there doesn’t have to be a father figure - it can be anyone in the family network who can be a role model,” he said.

However Mr Chhabra said he would still like to see more communication between police and the Aboriginal community to foster a greater understanding of the challenges facing Aboriginal people, who for example have been given a night curfew as part of their bail.

“For Aboriginal people their family is everything and that means extended family,” he said.

“So if for example they are having a meal with their aunty or they sleep over with a family member it is seen as a breach of bail.”

He says the same applies with failure to adhere to police moves on directions which also constitutes a breach of bail.

“They may be just with a group of friends and yes talking loudly, and don’t see why they should be asked to break up and move on,” he said.

“If they were a group of white rugby players doing exactly the same thing - would society look at the group in the same way - probably not.”

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