Magazine article Geographical

RIGHT TO LIVE: In a Landmark Case, Australia's High Court Has Awarded Damages to an Aboriginal Group in Compensation for Historic Incursions on Their Land, Opening the Way for Billions of Dollar's Worth of Potential Claims

Magazine article Geographical

RIGHT TO LIVE: In a Landmark Case, Australia's High Court Has Awarded Damages to an Aboriginal Group in Compensation for Historic Incursions on Their Land, Opening the Way for Billions of Dollar's Worth of Potential Claims

Article excerpt

When British colonists landed in Australia, they decided that, legally speaking, the land belonged to no one. This concept--called terra nullius--denied the Aboriginal population, at that time up to a million strong, any legal right to the land they lived on.

It wasn't until 1992 that the Australian courts finally recognised that the Australian land mass had not been a 'no man's land'. A new concept called 'native title' was introduced stating that Aboriginal people had always had rights to land and water according to their traditional laws and customs.

Now, Australia's High Court has discussed how this compensation should be calculated, upholding an award of AUD2.53m ([pounds sterling]1.4m) in damages to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali Aboriginal people, based in a remote part of the Northern Territory. The money is to compensate for acts committed by the Northern Territory government which built roads and infrastructure through a town called Timber Creek in the 1980s and 1990s. The ruling could have ramifications far beyond this one case. Lawyers representing governments and mining companies which own land in remote areas, have been reported as saying that the case paves the way for billions of dollars in compensation nationally.

Megan Brayne, a native title lawyer, explains that the ruling is particularly important, and unusual, because the compensation takes into account both economic loss and non-economic loss, with the latter focused on the spiritual and cultural disruption suffered by the groups--an alien concept in English law. …

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