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Overview

Establishment

The Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (the Act) establishes the Tribunal as an independent body with a wide range of functions. The Act is, itself, a ‘special measure’ for the advancement and protection of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders (Indigenous Australian peoples). The Act is intended to advance the process of reconciliation among all Australians.

The Act creates an Australia-wide native title scheme, the objectives of which include:

  • providing for the recognition and protection of native title
  • establishing a mechanism for determining claims to native title, and
  • establishing ways in which future dealings affecting native title (future acts) may proceed.

The Act provides that the Tribunal must carry out its functions in a fair, just, economical, informal and prompt way. In carrying out those functions, the Tribunal may take account of the cultural and customary concerns of Indigenous Australian peoples.

The President, Members and the Native Title Registrar

The President, other Members of the Tribunal and the Registrar are appointed by the Governor-General for specific terms of no longer than five years. The Act sets out the qualifications for appointment to, and respective responsibilities of, these offices.

Table 5.1 outlines Tribunal statutory office holders, at 30 June 2020.

Member James McNamara resigned in March 2020 to take up an appointment as a Member of the Land Court of Queensland. The appointment of a new member was outstanding at the end of the reporting period.

Table 5.1: Tribunal statutory office holders, 30 June 2020

Name

Title

Appointed

Term

Location

The Hon JA Dowsett AM, QC

President

27 April 2018

Five years

Brisbane

Helen Shurven

Member

Reappointed 29 November 2017

Five years

Perth

Nerida Cooley

Member

11 February 2019

Five years

Brisbane

Christine Fewings

Native Title Registrar

14 March 2018

Five years

Brisbane

Office locations

The Tribunal maintains offices in Brisbane, Cairns, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

Functions and powers

Under the Act, the Tribunal, comprising the President and Members, has specific functions in relation to:

  • mediating in native title proceedings, upon referral by the Federal Court
  • determining objections to the expedited procedure in the future act scheme
  • mediating in relation to certain proposed future acts on areas where native title exists, or might exist
  • determining applications concerning proposed future acts
  • assisting people to negotiate Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs), and helping to resolve any objections to registration of ILUAs
  • assisting with negotiations for the settlement of applications that relate to native title
  • providing assistance to representative bodies in performing their dispute resolution functions
  • reconsidering decisions of the Native Title Registrar not to accept a native title determination application (claimant application) for registration
  • conducting reviews concerning native title rights and interests (upon referral by the Federal Court)
  • conducting native title application inquiries as directed by the Federal Court, and
  • conducting special inquiries under Ministerial direction.

The President

The President is responsible for the management of the business of the Tribunal, including its administrative affairs, and the allocation of duties, powers and functions. The President is assisted by the CEO and Principal Registrar of the Federal Court. The CEO and Principal Registrar may delegate his or her responsibilities under the Act to the Native Title Registrar, or staff assisting the Tribunal. Staff assisting the Tribunal are made available for that purpose by the Federal Court.

The Members

With the President, the Members perform the arbitral, mediation and educational functions of the Tribunal, with the support of the Registrar and staff.

The Registrar

The Registrar:

  • assists people to prepare applications and to help them, and other persons in matters relating to proceedings in the Tribunal
  • considers whether claimant applications should be registered on the Register of Native Title Claims
  • gives notice of applications to individuals, organisations, governments and the public in accordance with the Act
  • registers ILUAs that meet the registration requirements of the Act, and
  • maintains the Register of Native Title Claims, the National Native Title Register and the Register of ILUAs.

The Registrar is also actively involved in the mediation and educational functions of the Tribunal.