Gumbaynggirr woman honoured as top Indigenous legal representative in Australia

Merinda in Darwin at the National Indigenous Legal Conference where she was awarded top Indigenous Legal Representative in Australia. Image: supplied.
Merinda in Darwin at the National Indigenous Legal Conference where she was awarded top Indigenous Legal Representative in Australia. Image: supplied.

Merinda Dutton has always had a passion for justice. The story of her father - a stolen generations survivor - stirred in her a need to help set things right for her people.

"He was born in far-western NSW and removed from his mother as a baby, even after his grandmother refused to sign the documentation," she said.

"That sparked a sense of injustice in me as a child and I've come back around to that being a huge motivator for doing what I do."

The Gumbaynggirr/Barkindji woman grew up in Grafton but has bloodlines in Bowraville, and has established a legal career championing the rights of Aboriginal people.

As a senior lawyer for Legal Aid NSW, Merinda has been part of a team which has helped make reparations for local survivors of institutional injustices.

Her work concentrates on reviewing refusal decisions of the NSW Government's Stolen Generations Reparation Scheme.

But she also works in other civil law matters.

She has helped to address housing barriers for women released from custody from Silverwater Women's Correctional Services - work that aims to break cycles of recidivism, abuse, and drug and alcohol dependency.

"We see housing as a way of people getting back on track," she said.

Before joining Legal Aid NSW in 2014, Merinda was employed at the Native Title Service Provider for Aboriginal Traditional Owners (NTSCORP), the Office of the Registrar - Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and the Indigenous Law Centre.

One of her proudest moments early on in her career was helping with and witnessing the consent determination for the Bandjalang Native Title claim at Evans Head - the longest running claim at the time.

She has also been on the board of directors of the Aboriginal Lawyers Association.

At only 29 years of age, she's already amassed a resume worthy of great admiration. But as of last week, Merinda can add another achievement to her already impressive list.

She was named Indigenous Legal Professional of the Year at the National Indigenous Legal Conference in Darwin.

"I was just quite stunned. I felt speechless," she said.

It was a huge honour. Given the calibre of previous recipients I was stoked to have even been nominated.

Legal Aid CEO Brendan Thomas said he was delighted that Merinda's work had been recognised.

"In the time that Merinda has worked with Legal Aid NSW, we have seen Merinda's passion and commitment to improving justice outcomes for her Aboriginal clients," he said.

"Last year Merinda supported an Aboriginal client to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Misconduct in Banking and Financial Services.

"Without her contribution, the Royal Commission may not have identified the immense and particular needs of this group.

"Merinda's accomplishments are particularly impressive in light of her relatively short career. She brings both youthful vigour and worldly wisdom to her work."

So how does one proceed after achieving such milestones at such a young age? Merinda said she has no concrete plans...yet.

"I will always be working with and for Aboriginal communities whatever I end up doing. That's what I'm navigated by," she said.

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