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After a Northern Territory magistrate publicly used insensitive language, Indigenous lawyer Daniel Briggs set out to right the wrong. His quest ended up costing him his job. By Kevin Childs.

Indigenous slur sees NAAJA, Daniel Briggs in war of words

It was just a word, but it pricked deeply. It still does. Court Two was in session in Darwin. Magistrate John Neil was into the second day of hearing charges of drunkenness and indecent exposure when he read from his notes. “Next saw Abo man,” he said, adding: “Forgive me, that’s my note…”

Neil is said to have been rebuked, but is not forgiven by some at court that day. Among them is Daniel Briggs, whose efforts to persuade his employer to make a stand against the magistrate were a catalyst in his fall from the bar table to the wheel of a 130-tonne road train.

At the heart of the dispute between Briggs and his boss was a profoundly different understanding of the offence. To the boss, the magistrate was harmless enough, but to Briggs, who grew up feeling the sting of racial taunts, it was something much worse.

Given up for adoption as an infant, Briggs saw racism firsthand, including hearing his adoptive white parents called “Abo lovers”. At primary school in a knockabout northern suburb of Melbourne he, too, wore the slur. “My younger brother and I copped floggings over this word, often from older kids,” he says. “The image of my nine-year-old brother lying on the ground crying when I was 11 leaves emotional scars.”

These days Briggs is angry and disillusioned over his treatment by the Northern Territory’s biggest legal “business”, the $12 million-plus-a-year North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA). He would like to be still practising law and helping his people.

‘Above and beyond’

At 42, Daniel Briggs is a latecomer to the law. He was responsible at NAAJA for managing the north-east Arnhem region, covering five courts, all regarded as remote. This meant travelling hundreds of kilometres just to get instructions from clients, even on weekends. “And we also did this for other lawyers who could not make it out here due to work commitments and logistics. We went above and well beyond our call of duty.”

Briggs said NAAJA had various problems filling the job over the decade before he took it and were happy to have an Aboriginal lawyer working for them. “Part of the reason they trusted me was because they knew I was not only responsible, I was not a cowboy. I was not someone they had to micromanage. I held my own. I also had a connection and a trust from the communities I serviced because I had an understanding and experience that non-Indigenous lawyers do not have.” 

The crux of his clash with his boss and NAAJA’s principal legal officer, Jonathon Hunyor, was Neil’s language – although Briggs was also upset by his treatment over personality clashes, file keeping and taking leave.

Briggs says he urged Hunyor to complain to the chief magistrate about Neil’s remark, but was told to “let it go” because it was “just Neil being a dick”. When Briggs argued that, as the peak body for Indigenous justice in the Northern Territory, NAAJA should tell the courts such behaviour was intolerable, Hunyor told him, “It’s just something we will rage about over a beer one day.”

Briggs was deeply offended. “Not once did he ask how I felt as an Aboriginal person or a staff member. Not once did he even suggest that it was a big deal. He clearly has no understanding of how offensive, hurtful and degrading I find that word to be.”

Hunyor, 43, the son of Hungarian refugees, whose background is in human rights work in Sydney, told The Saturday Paper: “We ‘rage over a beer’ a bit here – I think most criminal lawyers do. I wasn’t trying to be insensitive, but to acknowledge that while he was angry about it, it wasn’t something I thought we could do anything about. My reasons and process for forming that view … involved consulting with a senior Aboriginal manager. I never suggested that Daniel shouldn’t be angry about it. I have spent a lot of time working with and for Aboriginal people and in the company of close Aboriginal friends. I understood how he felt and never sought to diminish that.”

Hunyor emailed Briggs saying Neil’s comments were well short of misconduct but said he was keeping a file on Neil’s behaviour and that “if the ‘Abo’ comment happens more than once I’m happy to look at it again”.

The Saturday Paper asked Hunyor about the emotional scars borne by Briggs over being called an Abo. “I take language slurs very seriously and did so here,” Hunyor said. “As indicated … the issue which Daniel raised was taken seriously and dealt with appropriately by NAAJA.”

As for the complaint that his files were not properly maintained, Briggs accepts this rebuke, but adds that other lawyers who slipped up were not treated as severely.

“There was an instance where one lawyer had gone to a pub on the way home from court on a Friday. He had his files from the day with him. He got drunk and left them there, never to be found. People’s personal information was left there for all to see.”

Hunyor told The Saturday Paper that this involved “an employee who is no longer employed by NAAJA and is therefore confidential, however I can indicate that it is not correct to say that no action was taken…”

Then there was a dispute with another colleague. Briggs said the colleague was aggressive and hostile when allegations were put to him, but this was made worse because in this meeting Hunyor was against Briggs.

The next in-fighting erupted after a mix-up over leave that Briggs says was not his fault but led to Hunyor yelling at him and abusing him over the phone. “I was so upset that I could not even drive,” says Briggs. “I stayed where I was on the side of the road, my head in my hands, and cried. I have never been spoken to by a colleague like that and I was shocked, shaken and upset.”

Hunyor denies any verbal abuse. “Daniel was promoted into a management role by me very early in his career and supported in that role with training and regular management support. He had my active support as well as the support of our most senior criminal lawyer with whom he spoke regularly. Daniel received regular performance reviews with me and at these reviews staff are given the chance to raise any concerns. No concern about my management was raised at any of those performance reviews. I took his concerns seriously and treated him fairly.”

Bullying claims

Briggs was based almost 1000 kilometres from Darwin at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula. Moves were under way to close this office and move him with two of his children, aged 16 and 20, to Darwin.

Then, late in October last year, he lodged a formal complaint, alleging bullying. Seven days later Priscilla Collins, NAAJA’s CEO, rejected the claim. Collins emailed Briggs saying, “We must also be shown to have a valid process. The integrity in our system must be seen to work.”

She agreed, however, with Briggs’s request for a full and independent investigation, adding that Briggs’s suggestions that “allowing things to go away quietly will not fix things if there is a genuine problem”. Her second comment left Briggs offended because that was not what he wanted. Instead he saw a need for all NAAJA staff to be trained in what constitutes bullying.

After The Saturday Paper emailed questions to Hunyor, Collins replied as well, saying the principal legal officer had her full support and that of the board. “Daniel’s complaints were carefully investigated by me and another senior manager and found to have no substance.

“I also informed Daniel that I could have an external party come and investigate the incident but he declined to take up that offer.” This “external party” was the local chamber of commerce.

After all this, Hunyor says he agreed to a request by Briggs to take the complaint to his board. “The board took the view that the matter should be raised with the magistrate directly to note the offence caused. Accordingly, I did so.”

The Saturday Paper asked board chairman Vernon Patullo about the complaint but the phone line went dead. Voicemail messages were not returned.

Taking legal action

With the decision to close the Nhulunbuy office Briggs accepted a redundancy offer, which he says tided him over until he found work about four months later hauling bauxite for an Aboriginal civil construction firm contracted to Rio Tinto. “I felt I had no choice but to quit … With the limited legal aid work available in the Northern Territory I could not find another job and am not experienced enough to go into private practice.”

He says that at the urging of colleagues who sit in courts in Melbourne he has an action against NAAJA, being run on a no-win no-fee basis by the national law firm Maurice Blackburn.

“It has nothing to do with money,” says Briggs. “I want justice. A judge in Victoria said he agreed with me that if a similar comment were made from the bench in the US, at the very least the courthouse would be burnt down.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "War of the words". Subscribe here.

Kevin Childs
is a journalist and author.