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Research Report: Access to justice background paper
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Access to justice background paper  ( 2003 )  Cite this report

Social and economic disadvantage

Social disadvantage



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Indigenous Australians


The economic and social disadvantages faced by Indigenous Australians, together with their over representation in the criminal justice system, has been the subject of several inquiries and royal commissions. In addition to facing a range of cultural and communication barriers, they face particular issues, such as dispossession and the 'stolen generation', which place them in a uniquely disadvantaged position.

The following statistics are drawn from the 1996 Census .42

  • The estimated resident Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in Australia as at 30 June 1996 was 386,000. One hundred and ten thousand (28.5%) of the Indigenous population resided in NSW, and Indigenous people constituted 1.8% of the total population of NSW.
  • The Indigenous population is becoming increasingly urbanised, with 72.6% living in an area defined as urban. However, Indigenous people are more likely to live in smaller urban centres (42.3%) than in large cities (30.3%). Nearly 20% lived in areas classified as 'very remote' when compared to only 1% of the non-Indigenous population.
  • In 1996 the median personal income of Indigenous Australians was $190 per week, being 65% of the median income for all Australians. Median household income was also less than for the general population, despite the fact that Indigenous households tend to be larger.

A range of studies have unearthed a range of social disadvantages suffered by Indigenous Australians:
  • In 1999 Indigenous Australians were more likely than the non-Indigenous population to live in conditions considered unacceptable by general Australian standards. Overcrowding, high housing costs relative to income, poorly maintained buildings and facilities and inadequate infrastructure are major issues associated with the housing of Indigenous people.43
  • Indigenous people experienced lower levels of access to health services than the general population. Indigenous people are nearly twice as likely as members of the general population to live outside urban centres and are more likely to live further from a range of health services and facilities.44
  • The Indigenous population is much younger than the general population, with a median age of 20 (compared to 34). Life expectancy over the period 1997-9 was 56 years for males and 63 years for females, nearly 20 years less than for the total population.45
  • Data from national surveys in 1994 and 1995 indicates that Indigenous people were more likely than non-Indigenous people to smoke, consume alcohol at hazardous levels, be exposed to violence and to be categorised as obese. Indigenous Australians also suffer from higher levels of many mental and behavioural disorders46
  • When compared to the rest of the Australian population the Indigenous population had a lower employment to population ratio, a considerably higher unemployment rate and a lower labour force participation rate. In February 2000 the employment to population ratio was 44% for Indigenous persons compared to 59% for non- Indigenous people. The unemployment rate was 17.6% for Indigenous people, when compared to 7.3% for non-Indigenous people. The labour force participation rate was 52.9% for Indigenous people and 63.7% for non-Indigenous people47
  • Indigenous Australians are less likely to be in full-time education than other Australians. In the 1996 census 44% of young Indigenous people in NSW were attending an educational institution. Only 3% of Indigenous people in NSW were attending a university or other tertiary institution.48
  • The rate of home ownership among Indigenous households residing in NSW (34.2%) is much lower than for all family and lone person households (69.1%). In 1996, approximately 63% of Indigenous households were renting their dwelling, compared to 27% of other households49
  • Indigenous persons are over-represented among people receiving emergency accommodation support. 15.7% of the clients of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program in NSW were Indigenous, while Indigenous people represent 1.8% of the NSW population.50
  • On 30 June 2001, 15.1% of the NSW prison population (1,339) were Indigenous. Indigenous persons are much more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous persons, with an imprisonment rate of 1,829 per 100,000 adult Indigenous population, about 15 times the rate for the non-Indigenous population.51
  • The six major factors underlying the high rates of Indigenous arrest include (in order of magnitude): sex, labour force status, alcohol consumption, whether a person had been physically attacked or verbally threatened, various age factors, and level of education.52
  • A number of studies have shown that Indigenous violence is widespread and disproportionately high compared to non-Indigenous violence in Australian society. Types of violence include spousal violence, homicide, sexual assault, child neglect/abuse and self-injury. Rates of violence are increasing, and the types of violence are worsening in some Indigenous communities and regions.53

Access to justice issues
Indigenous Australians therefore face a daunting array of barriers to accessing justice, from institutional cultural insensitivity to significant information deficits. They suffer from 'visibility' and are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Generally, low socio-economic status further compounds these problems.

It is easy to stereotype the Indigenous population as being concerned primarily with criminal law, welfare, family violence and native title issues. These are certainly the areas of need that that have been most explored in the past. However, as members of the broader community, Indigenous Australians are potentially subject to the same range of legal issues as any other group. For example, the high proportion of Indigenous Australians that rent their home means they are likely to be susceptible to tenancy problems. Intellectual property is another area of increasing relevance to Indigenous artists and communities, and one that is often neglected.



Australian Bureau of Statistics, `Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians: A statistical profile from the 1996 Census`, Year Book Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1999.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, The health and welfare of Australia`s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, No. 4704.0, Canberra, 2001.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour force characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, No. 6287.0, Canberra, 2000.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, New South Wales` young people, No. 4123.1, Canberra, 1998.
Department of Women (NSW), Issues of importance to women in NSW, Sydney, 1998, p. 17.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, SAAP annual data collection annual report 2000-2001, 2001, p. 10.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, No. 4517.0, Canberra, 2001
B Hamilton Hunter, Factors Underlying Indigenous Arrest Rates, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney, 2001, p2
Quantitative and qualitative studies on the incidence of Indigenous violence are reviewed in Section 1 of P Memmott, R Stacy, C Chambers & C Keys, Violence in Indigenous Communities, Attorney-General`s Department, Canberra, 2001

42  Australian Bureau of Statistics, `Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians: A statistical profile from the 1996 Census`, Year Book Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1999.
43  Australian Bureau of Statistics, The health and welfare of Australia`s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, No. 4704.0, Canberra, 2001.
44  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare.
45  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare
46  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Health and welfare.
47  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour force characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, No. 6287.0, Canberra, 2000.
48  Australian Bureau of Statistics, New South Wales` young people, No. 4123.1, Canberra, 1998.
49  Department of Women (NSW), Issues of importance to women in NSW, Sydney, 1998, p. 17.
50  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, SAAP annual data collection annual report 2000-2001, 2001, p. 10.
51  Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia, No. 4517.0, Canberra, 2001
52  B Hamilton Hunter, Factors Underlying Indigenous Arrest Rates, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney, 2001, p2
53  Quantitative and qualitative studies on the incidence of Indigenous violence are reviewed in Section 1 of P Memmott, R Stacy, C Chambers & C Keys, Violence in Indigenous Communities, Attorney-General`s Department, Canberra, 2001


CLOSE
Schetzer, L, Mullins, J & Buonamano, R 2003, Access to justice & legal needs, a project to identify legal needs, pathways and barriers for disadvantaged people in NSW. Background paper. Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney, 2002, <http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/report/background>