Social justice has always inspired Hema Hariharan, Managing Practitioner Director of Arma Legal.
Headquartered in Perth with offices in Broome, her firm specialises in providing tailored legal services for Aboriginal groups. Hema has been recognised as a leading native title lawyer in Doyle’s Guide 2021 and consulted on TV show, ‘The Heights’ when it dealt with native title. Insights spoke to Hema about what Arma Legal does, how she got involved in native title and Aboriginal legal services, and what advice she might have for lawyers interested in moving into this field.
Building opportunities for Aboriginal people
Hema was in school when the Mabo decision came down from the High Court.
"I was very curious about it all,” recalled Hema. "I had just learned the implications of 'Terra Nullius’ in my history subject at school."
This fledgling interest grew to a passion for the field, particularly in social justice causes.
"Social justice matters," Hema observed. "Social justice causes have always inspired me. I've really wanted to advocate to ensure real outcomes for people."
This led her to a career in the Kimberley, after working in native title in New South Wales.
"Many moons ago, I worked for the Kimberley Land Council and knew that Ambooriny Burru Charitable foundation and KRED Enterprises was being set up,” explained Hema. “Arma Legal was then set up as a subsidiary of KRED to provide tailored legal services to Aboriginal groups. Arma Legal stemmed from the Kimberley Land Council with the aspiration to build opportunities for Aboriginal people to participate in the modern economy."
It is an ambition that extends beyond native title.
"We provide services to native title claim groups, Prescribed Body Corporates (who hold native title on behalf of the native title holder), native title representative bodies and Aboriginal organisations throughout Australia on native title, environmental, corporate and commercial issues. We have also provided advice to non-indigenous organisations who want to meaningfully engage with Aboriginal groups."
"I believe at Arma we have a unique link with Native Title Holders," explained Hema. "As such, we understand the underlying issues which may influence the decision making of our clients, who are generally community groups. We combine our cultural understanding with strategic and commercial advice, building into our advice opportunities for cultural and environmental protection and development, Aboriginal employment and business opportunities."
Expect the unexpected
Hema works closely with her team, which is committed to helping clients advance the interests. This could involve unlocking economic opportunities or improve standards regarding Aboriginal engagement.
"We aim to create new benchmarks in agreement making rather than simply accepting the status quo, which I find rewarding,” said Hema. "I’d also like to mention the team and the staff within the KRED Group, which is owned by the Ambooriny Burru Charitable foundation. They are a great bunch of people with diverse backgrounds with the same aims, looking to assist Traditional Owners."
"I like that were able to think outside the box in terms of our services to our clients. Native Title is a part of what we do, not the whole picture. It’s not only about administration of the Native Title Act, but its interactions with environmental, planning, heritage protection, public works, corporate law, trusts and so on. The variety and the intersection of the areas of law is very interesting. Every day is just a little different."
Adaptability is essential.
"You have to expect the unexpected," said Hema. "There isn’t going to be much boardroom or conference time. There will be some but be prepared to go out “on-country” to meet with your clients and get a sense of what’s needed and what the issues are."
According to Hema, Australia's native title systems are notoriously under-resourced.
"Every state has a Native Title Representative Body representing native title claimants," explained Hema. "If you want to get involved, I suggest reaching out to the Representative Body for your region, Representiaves Bodies are usually looking for good lawyers. Also get out to community events including the football, markets etc."
Getting in the business of helping people
Hema was initially hesitant about moving into native title.
"I was worried about creating too much of a niche for myself," said Hema. "Since then, those fears have been alleviated. Yes, there may be a perceived niche, but like I said there is so much variety in the work we do. I got into the business of helping people, which I believe that I have."
She works in quite remote parts of Australia.
"Avoid assuming that you know what instructions a client is going to provide based on the advice given," cautioned Hema. "Often, there are nuances that you are not aware of. Asking open questions can help ensure you understand the circumstances surrounding why certain instructions are given. When your clients are on the ground, and you are based mostly in town, you won’t necessarily know the pertinent things happening on-country or in the community which might impact the client's instructions. I try to ensure that the advice is culturally appropriate and works with the community, thus works for the community."