February 25, 2007

Dissent over Aboriginal legal fight

Posted at 12:01 pm in Similar cases

Is the legal argument started by Australia’s Aboriginals a waste of public money?

The Australian

Museum bones legal fight ‘a waste’ of $1m
* Matthew Denholm, Peter Wilson
* February 24, 2007

AN Aboriginal group has broken ranks to oppose costly legal action aimed at stopping a British museum conducting tests on indigenous remains.
Tasmania’s Lia Pootah community yesterday attacked the case against London’s Natural History Museum as a waste of money, as lawyers predicted legal fees could top $1 million.

Indigenous leader and Labor national president Warren Mundine also expressed concern about the cost, as well as the loss of information obtained from the tests, which he said could benefit Aborigines.

The federal Government has committed to paying the costs of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, including any costs awarded against it if the case is lost.

It has also joined the case before the British High Court as a party in its own right, making it one of up to seven parties in a growing lawyers’ banquet.

Lia Pootah spokeswoman Kaye McPherson yesterday told The Weekend Australian taxpayers’ money would be better directed to indigenous education and cultural programs. She said the DNA and other tests proposed by the museum might have benefits for Aboriginal Australians, a point backed by Mr Mundine.

“There is a very emotional balancing act,” Mr Mundine said. “What was done (taking of Aboriginal remains) is nothing short of horrible. At the same time, there has been some research that has come out of this which could have been good.”
After a protracted legal and moral debate, the NHM late agreed last year to hand back the remains of 17 Tasmanian Aborigines that were held in its collection.

However, it is insisting on first completing a range of “data collection”, ranging from CT scans to drilling into skulls and removing fragments for DNA and other analysis.

The High Court action is aimed at securing the return of the remains before further tests. But Ms McPherson said that as she believed such tests had already been conducted, the legal action was a waste of money.

Lawyers involved in the case, to be heard over three days from March 7, predict legal fees could easily top $1million.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock refused to detail any cost estimates for the case. “The department will work with the TAC to ensure costs are kept to a reasonable level,” his spokesman said, adding that if successful the TAC would repay federal funds provided.

An NHM report says data obtained from small samples of the remains are vital for research into the “diversity and evolution” of humans.

Bones and teeth, it argues, can unlock “large-scale patterns of human evolution … migration patterns, pathology and many other questions”.

Ms McPherson said her group believed some of the research would “benefit our community” but the expenditure on the legal challenge was “appalling”.

Mr Mundine agreed the likely funding for the High Court case “could be better spent” on health and education programs, but stopped short of calling for the case to be dropped.

The Lia Pootah are taking legal advice on a potential challenge to a decision of the Tasmanian Supreme Court recognising the TAC as the executor of the estates of the 17 Aborigines. The Lia Pootah and the TAC have for years challenged each other’s claims to represent Tasmanian Aborigines.

Ms McPherson accused the TAC of wanting to prevent DNA testing by the museum because it could be used to develop a test to determine Tasmanian Aboriginality.

TAC legal adviser Michael Mansell would not comment yesterday, but he has frequently dismissed the Lia Pootah as “white fellas”.

Mr Mundine urged both groups to work through their differences, while federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough backed the TAC as the “appropriate group” to take possession of the remains.

Mark Stephens, a London solicitor working for the TAC, said lawyers representing the NHM had disclosed that their fees alone had already passed pound stg. 100,000 ($248,000).

“And that could double by the time the actual hearing is held,” he said.

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