2022 Year in Review: Native Title Law and Policy

Native title and other related laws continue to be complex and dynamic. This article summarises key native title claim statistics and then identifies trends from in 2022, including in relation to native title compensation and charitable trust laws. Updates to national treaty discussions are also provided. Four key native title decisions from 2022 are then explored, including a decision relating to implied Indigenous Land Use Agreement terms. Finally, recent changes to related laws in Western Australia and Northern Territory are explained.

The article is available here.

Template PBC Rulebook

If a native title claim is successful, the native title holders must nominate an Aboriginal corporation to hold their native title. This is formally called a Registered Native Title Body Corporate (or ‘RNTBC’). It more commonly referred to as a Prescribed Body Corporate, or a PBC. To learn more about the steps for PBC incorporation, view our video and factsheet here.

In making a PBC, native title holders can design their own Rule Book. The Rule Book sets out how the PBC will work. Some rules are set and cannot be changed. Other rules can be changed.

We have developed a Template Rule Book and Schedule Index to help native title holders understand which rules are set and which rules can be changed. The Template Rule book has a light bulb symbol for each rule that native title holders should discuss further. The Schedule Index then provides brief commentary and key questions for that rule.

Our Template Rule Book is available here and the Schedule Index is available here.  

Native title compensation – Evidencing and assessing cultural loss


1.     The High Court case of Northern Territory v Mr A Griffiths (decd) and Lorraine Jones obh of Ngaliwurru and Nungali Peoples (2019) 269 CLR 1 (Timber Creek) remains the authority on the correct approach to resolving native title compensation claims in accordance with s 51 of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (NTA).

2.     The approach adopted by the High Court involves identifying economic and non-economic components of native title compensation. The latter was described by the High Court as cultural loss, and accounted for $1.3 million of the compensation awarded to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali Peoples.

3.     While the Timber Creek decision sets out the components of native title compensation required by the NTA, it leaves many questions open regarding how to value cultural loss. Amongst other things, this paper aims to suggest how the principles in Timber creek might be used as a guide to evidence and assess cultural loss.

4.     Currently there are 15 active native title compensation claims in Australia: 11 in Western Australia, two in the Northern Territory, one in Queensland and one in New South Wales. There have been four successful determinations of native title: two in South Australia, one in the Northern Territory and one in New South Wales.[1]

5.     As some preliminary observations about the trends in native title compensation claims since Timber Creek, we note:

a.     There hasn’t been an immediate uptake of native title compensation applications since the first consent determination by De Rose v State of South Australia [2013] FCA 988 (De Rose Hill), nor since the High Court’s decision in Timber Creek.

b.     Western Australia currently appears to be the most represented state in current native title compensation claims by a long way.

c.     It may be the case that we will soon begin to see many more native title compensation claims emerging from the other states and territories.

6.     In Timber Creek, the court adopted the trial judge’s bifurcated approach to assessing the components of native title compensation, comprising of:

a.     economic loss, including simple interest to the economic loss; and

b.     non-economic loss (what the court labels ‘cultural loss’).[2]

7.     This article focuses on the final component of the court’s bifurcated approach, cultural loss.

8.     There are several other questions which this paper will not consider but which Timber Creek leaves unanswered. These include:

a.     whether compensable acts are in fact limited to after the commencement of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth);[3]

b.     how economic loss should be valued and what methods can be adopted;

c.     in what instances could claimants claim compound interest to their economic loss, and what do they need to show to substantiate that claim;

d.     the assessment of a market value for compensation in respect to mining tenements;

e.     the application of international examples of compensations settlements;[4] and

f.      appropriate negotiation strategies to seek the resolution between of a native title compensation application.

9.     Instead, this article will focus on:

a.     Why is cultural loss relevant? And what are the legal principles and factors underpinning it?

b.     How can evidence be gathered?

c.     What can parties do to reach an agreement on cultural loss?

Why is cultural loss relevant?

Legal principles

10.  Subsection 51(xxi) of the Constitution provides for the legislative power in respect to:[5]

the acquisition of property on just terms from any State or person for any purpose in respect of which the Parliament has power to make laws; (emphasis added)

11.  Part 2, Division 5 of the NTA contains the compensation provisions relating to native title, and s 51 of the NTA applies the requirement for ‘just terms’ compensation to the extinguishment of or impact on native title rights and interests as follows:[6]

Just compensation

(1) Subject to subsection (3), the entitlement to compensation under Division 2, 2A, 2B, 3 or 4 is an entitlement on just terms to compensate the native title holders for any loss, diminution, impairment or other effect of the act on their native title rights and interests. (emphasis added)

Acquisition under compulsory acquisition law

(2) If the act is the compulsory acquisition of all or any of the native title rights and interests of the native title holders, the court, person or body making the determination of compensation on just terms may, subject to subsections (5) to (8), in doing so have regard to any principles or criteria for determining compensation set out in the law under which the compulsory acquisition takes place.’

12.  The NTA does not set out how to assess just terms compensation for extinguishment of or impairment on native title rights and interests.

13.  Instead, the High Court’s interpretation in Timber Creek remains the primary authority on this question, and the trial judge’s bifurcated approach remains the current approach to resolving native title compensation claims. While other compensation claims may approach this question differently in future, this approach was not contested by the appellant or respondent in Timber Creek, and was endorsed by the High Court.[7]

14.  The non-economic aspect of native title compensation relates to any ‘other effect of the [compensable] act on their native title rights and interests’ (as emphasised above from s 51(1) of the NTA).

15.  The High Court defines the non-economic component of native title compensation (what the High Court labels as ‘cultural loss’), as being: [8]

‘…compensation for that aspect of the value of land to native title holders which is inherent in the thing that has been lost, diminished, impaired or otherwise affected by the compensable acts. It is not just about hurt feelings, although the strength of feeling may have evidentiary value in determining the extent of it. It is compensation for a particular effect of a compensable act…’

16.  This definition was a departure from the trial judge’s use of the term ‘solatium’[9] to refer to the non-economic component of the claimant’s native title compensation. The High Court instead observed that the English common law principle of ‘solatium’ did not apply to the special nature of “native title rights and interests that arise under traditional laws and customs which owe their origins and nature to a different belief system.”[10]

17.  The High Court understood s 51(1) of the NTA as recognising two aspects of native title rights and interests identified in s 223(1), those being: [11]

‘(T)he physical or material aspect (the right to do something in relation to land) and the cultural or spiritual aspect (the connection with the land) – as well as the fact that the manner in which each aspect may be affected by a compensable act may be different.’

18.  Importantly, while Timber Creek identified the task of assessing cultural loss and the requirement to assess the amount of compensation as an in globo amount,[12] the case did not set clear guidance on how that amount can be determined. The trial judge emphasised the observation of Mahoney A-CJ in Crampton v Nugawela (1996) 41 NSWLR 176 that:

‘There is no yardstick for measuring these matters. Value may be determined by a market: there is no market for this. There is no generally accepted or perceptible level of awards, made by juries or by judges, which can be isolated and which can indicate the “ongoing rate” or judicial consensus on these matters. And there is, of course, no statutory or other basis. In the end, damages for distress and anguish are the result of a social judgment, made by the jury and monitored by appellate courts, of what, in the given community at the given time, is an appropriate award or, perhaps, solatium for what has been done.’[13]

19.  Instead, the trial judge took an intuitive approach, requiring a quantum of compensation that would be considered fair and just in the Australian community.[14]

20.  The High Court adopted the trial judge’s approach to assessing the non-economic component of native title compensation, confirming that:[15]

‘The task then is to determine the essentially spiritual relationship which the Ngaliwurru and Nungali Peoples had with their country and to translate the spiritual hurt caused by the compensable acts into compensation.’

21.  The High Court also endorsed the trial judge’s three interrelated steps when assessing cultural loss, those being:[16]

a.     identification of the compensable acts;

b.     identification of the native title holders’ connection with the land or waters by their laws and customs; and

c.     consideration of the interrelated effects of the compensable acts on that connection.

22.  The High Court clarifies that compensable acts should not be considered in isolation, but instead regard must be given to their accumulative effects. The High Court used the often quoted, and effective metaphor of damage to a painting: [17]

‘Each act affected native title rights and interests with respect to a particular piece of land.  But each act was also to be understood by reference to the whole of the area over which the relevant rights and interests had been claimed.  As was explained earlier, each act put a hole in what could be likened to a single large painting – a single and coherent pattern of belief in relation to a far wider area of land.  It was as if a series of holes was punched in separate parts of the one painting.  The damage done was not to be measured by reference to the hole, or any one hole, but by reference to the entire work.’ (emphasis added)

23.  In short, the Timber Creek decision makes clear that assessing cultural loss:

a.     requires consideration of the ‘bigger picture’ of the compensable acts, including analysis of the interrelated effects on native title holders’ connection with land or water by their laws and customs;

b.     is intuitive; and

c.     will depend on the facts of each case.


24.  Applying the High Court’s approach adopted in Timber Creek will require native title holders to demonstrate the nature of their native title rights and interests before the compensable act, as well as how that compensable act has affected those rights. In short, native title holders will need to start by showing the nature of the rights and interests they claim to have been affected by the compensable act.

25.  Witness evidence will be important to establish these facts. However, this may be difficult for acts that date back to 1975. As such, lay evidence will need to be supported by expert evidence which speaks to what rights and interests existed at the relevant point in time.

26.  Once agreement has been reached on the rights and interests that existed at the time of the compensable act, evidence will in turn need to demonstrate the diminution of the rights and interests on the native title holders, both in context of their spiritual as well as physical dimensions.

27.  As encapsulated by the High Court’s metaphor of the entire painted work, the effects of the compensable acts are not limited to the particular parcel of land to which the act applies, but rather in reference to the whole of the area in which a group holds native title. As such, evidence should seek to demonstrate the spiritual damage caused by the act to “a single and coherent pattern of belief in relation to a far wider area of land.”[18]

28.  Evidence might demonstrate that the damage is “permanent and intergenerational.”[19] Therefore, contemporary evidence of lay witnesses may explain how the effects of the damage to rights and interests continue to be felt. In a way this could be described as continuity evidence in the compensation context. In Timber Creek for example, the High Court recognised the fact that the effect of the compensable acts on the claimants had not diminished in the three decades that had passed.[20]

29.  Anthropological evidence should aim to provide a comprehensive account that can support these facts. Expert anthropologist Pamela McGrath has commented that anthropological evidence will need to help ‘articulate not only connections to country, but also the qualities and consequences of the social impacts that accompany the loss of connections to country.’[21]

30.  In the Timber Creek trial, the anthropological evidence substantiated the following factors for the trial judge’s assessment of cultural loss:[22]

a.     the nature of the native title interest affected;

b.     the length of time of native title holders’ connection to country;

c.     the distress and anxiety caused by the loss of the part of country;

d.     the period of time people have been dispossessed of country;

e.     the fact that people would have maintained their connection in perpetuity if not for the dispossession; and

f.      the special value of the land to the community.

31.  In particular, anthropological evidence will assist in substantiating the different forms of cultural loss, which include loss relating to impaired access, residence, activities, practices, ecology, sites, trauma as well as progressive impairment.[23]

32.  To summarise, the approach adopted by the High Court in Timber Creek makes clear that an assessment and evidencing of cultural loss requires:

a.     Definition of the native title rights and interests, including an analysis of any difference between those rights and interests at the time of the compensable act and ‘now’; and

b.     the anthropological research will need to provide a comprehensive account of the claimants’ spiritual connection to the entirety of the country.

How can evidence be gathered?

Timber Creek

33.  Analysis of the evidence submitted and considered in Timber Creek should help inform the type of evidence required to substantiate a claim to native title compensation in accordance with the considerations identified by the High Court. Naturally, this evidence was to trial standard.

34.  In Timber Creek, the High Court considered evidence which included evidence from claimants about the effects of acts done on land without permission, with one claimant giving evidence that: [24]

‘Each group has to look after its bit of the Dreaming. If something goes wrong with our part, others think we are no good. That’s what happened when all of these things have been built in the town. Other Aboriginal people complain about it and say that we are letting them down.

It hurts my feelings when gardia do these things. They go ahead without talking to the old fella [AG (now deceased)] or me. When I see the Dreaming being damaged, I feel for my old people. I feel ashamed, like I’ve done the wrong thing myself in not looking after the country, the sites and the Dreaming. And [AG (now deceased)] gets cross with me. He says I am letting down the old people.’

35.  The anthropological evidence tendered on behalf of the claimant was prepared by Dr Kingsley Palmer and Ms Wendy Asche. The evidence focussed on establishing the interconnectedness of the multiple sites they documented around Timber Creek, and their significance to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali people.

36.  The court noted Palmer and Asche’s emphasis of the relationship between the Dreaming and the sites: [25]

‘sites are a pivotal Dreaming reference and represent, in the applicants’ belief, an important attestation of the powerful spirituality of the Dreaming. … [T]he power … underpins the system whereby the applicants consider their world to be ordered. … Sites are then far more than places or lists of named locations. They should also be understood as meta-place, that is a reference to a place is also a reference to a whole range of spirituality and associated imperatives that inform social exchanges, cultural activity and determine priorities.’

37.  The anthropolgoical research took an emic approach to the evidencing of the claimants’ experiences of emotional distress and suffering arising from the compensable acts, and relied heavily on language and cultural expression to frame that suffering.[26]

38.  The research included identification of words in the local language (Ngaliwuru) that described the group’s loss or alienation of country and damage to it.

39.  This includes:[27]

a.     ‘Paark’ – meaning something irretrievably broken.

b.     ‘Maring’ – meaning something damaged or ‘buggered up’, or used in conjunction with country (yakpali) to mean ‘spoiling the country’.

c.     ‘Puru maring’ – meaning intense personal feelings that accompany an act of spoiling. ‘Puru’ means gut, and ‘puru maring’ can be translated as ‘broken-hearted’ or, as preferred by the trial judge, ‘gut wrenching’.[28]

40.  This language helps describe the claimants’ experiences of distress as a result of the compensable acts, and the concepts of pain, suffering and reputational damage (such as a result of their inability to perform their duties) in relation to their traditions and customs.

41.  Specifically in Timber Creek, the evidence of the effects on connection and native title rights and interests considered by the High Court to assess cultural loss included:

a.     the concept of “puru maring” caused by the construction of water tanks on a Dreaming track”.[29]

b.     acts obstructing the claimants’ ability to conduct ceremonial and spiritual activities on parcels adjoining areas where compensable acts took place;[30]

c.     the fact that each of the compensable acts to some degree “chipped away” at the geographical area resulting in incremental detriment to the enjoyment of the native title rights and interests over the entire area leading to a collective diminution of the Claim Group’s cultural and spiritual connection with the land and a sense of failed responsibility, under the traditional laws and customs, to have cared for and looked after the land; and[31]

d.     hurt feelings and shame in the community caused to claimants by the construction, without their permission, of a concrete causeway (and four other construction events) on Timber Creek that “cut the life out of the (Wirup) Dreaming” and which was perceived as a failure to look after the Dreaming.[32]

De Rose Hill

42.  Another useful example is what we can glean from De Rose Hill, the first consent determination for native title compensation. This case was resolved by consent determination, and as such the agreement on the settlement amount was not specifically an agreement about cultural loss.

43.  However, in the reasons for the consent determination in De Rose Hill, Mansfield J made clear that:[33]

It is useful to put into more context the significance to the [native title holders] of the particular areas of land in respect of which, in particular, compensation is to be granted. In doing so, it is also important to note that my comments in [38]-[67] below do not represent an agreed statement of facts, nor do they reflect the position of the State in relation to the issues discussed therein. They reflect the statements made by the members of the compensation claim group during the course of the negotiations and therefore, to some degree, reflect the basis on which those negotiations proceeded. A compromise has been reached between the parties and it has not been necessary for the State to test the statements made by members of the compensation claim group during those negotiations. (emphasis added)

44.  Although not involving an agreement on cultural loss, the reasons for the decision to make the compensation determination reveal that the rich evidence of cultural connection and the direct and indirect effects of compensable acts on that connection provided by the claimants were central to the process.

45.  The broad process adopted in De Rose Hill was as follows:

a.     pre-filing exchange of information;

b.     authorisation and filing;

c.     refinement of issues in dispute;

d.     on-country and in-court mediation; and

e.     agreement on quantum.[34]

46.  Evidence was exchanged at each and every stage of the process identified at paragraph 39.

47.  Evidence included:

a.     anthropological evidence (prepared by the same anthropologist at the trial);

b.     witness statements; and

c.     on-country exchanges of information.

48.  However, it was the on-country exchanges of information during mediation that appears to have proved particularly key to the resolution of native title compensation. The significance of these exchanges is recorded in the reasons for making the compensation determination, where Mansfield J notes that:[35]

Mediation conferences were held in Adelaide on 26 June 2012 and on-country on 28 and 29 June 2012. In the mediator’s report to the Court dated 3 October 2012, the significance of the on-country mediation is described in the following terms (at [5]-[6]):

In my view, the “on-country” information sessions were conducted admirably on both sides. They undoubtedly ‘brought to life’ particular elements of the compensation claim, the Applicant is contending for and informed subsequent dealings between the parties. (emphasis added)

49.  While the negotiated agreement to settle De Rose Hill cannot be said to have been an agreement on cultural loss, the reasons for the decision to make the compensation determination reveal rich evidence of cultural connection that was provided on-country. For example, Mansfield J explains[36]:

The parties to the mediation have agreed to disclose that a number of senior members of the Nguraritja spoke during the on-country mediation about the significance to them of the areas where native title has been extinguished. They refer to De Rose Hill Station as Kalaya (Emu) Country due to the Kalaya Tjukurpa (emu dreaming) that passes through that country. A number of other Tjukurpa, for example, Papa (Dog) and Malu (Kangaroo) also travel within and across the boundaries of De Rose Hill Pastoral Run. The Nguraritja spoke about the Tjukurpa stories associated with each of the areas affected by the extinguishing acts.

50.  The on-country exchange of information included the:

a.     sharing of song lines that had been interrupted due to a compensable act and the consequential shame and pain attached to the effect of the act on parts of the song line;

b.     firsthand accounts of the experience of the compensable acts and their effects; and

c.     firsthand accounts of how the environment had changed as a consequence of the compensable acts, and the significance of these changes to the spiritual integrity of the landscape and its Tjukurpa stories.

51.  In the reasons for the determination, Mansfield J records detail of claimant statements about particular effects compensable acts, which we now know equate to cultural loss. These include:

a.     feelings of exclusion from parts of the Kalaya Tjukurpa (emu dreaming) on account of a freehold block, and an inability to take young people to that area to teach aspects of the dreaming;[37]

b.     damage the construction of the Stuart Highway has done to the physical environment and in turn spiritual integrity of the Kalaya Tjukurpa, with claimants describing the damage as a ‘cutting of a cassette tape’;[38]

c.     the interruption caused by the construction of a car park and the subsequent increased motor activity to men’s initiation ceremonies at Agnes Creek;[39]

d.     the interruption to a creek bed by the construction of an embankment, impacting the claimants’ ability to teach aspects of the Kalaya Tjukurpa story and in turn generating a sense of failure by the claimants to protect a sacred site;[40]

e.     the construction of part of the Stuart Highway over a traditional grave sight, causing the irrevocable loss of the spirit of the deceased relative.[41]

Future claims

52.  We are aware of several native title compensation claims that are being prepared. Those claims are known to be informed by expert anthropological evidence, from anthropologists with high standing and experience in the relevant region.

53.  In review of the evidence used and considered in previous cultural loss claims, topics and questions that could be included in a brief to anthropologists for such claims include:

a.     Law and customs:

                                               i.     What are the native title holders’ traditional laws and customs laws and customs from 1975 to present?

                                              ii.     What is the native title holders’ connection to country by way of those traditional laws and customs from 1975 to present?

b.     Effects of compensable acts:

                                               i.     What effects have the acts had on the exercise by native title holders of their native title rights and interests?

                                              ii.     What effects have the acts had on the native title holders’ connection to the particular land and waters the subject of the act?

                                             iii.     What effects have the acts on the native title holders as individuals and as a group?

c.     Collective and cumulative effects:

                                               i.     What are the cumulative effects on the native title holders’ rights and interests?

                                              ii.     What are the cumulative effects on the native title holders’ connection to country?

                                             iii.     What are the cumulative effects on the native title holders as individuals and as a group?

54.  A brief should also request the anthropologist to consider the following specific questions in relation to the compensable acts:

a.     What effects can denial of access to places have on the native title holders and their connection?

b.     To what extent has customary law and other ceremonial activity been conducted on country in the past, and to what extent now? What has the change been?

c.     What effect on native title holders does a lack of access to flora and fauna in particular places?

d.     How can changes to the topography of country, the quality and quantity of groundwater and the integrity of the environment affect native title holders’ and their country?

e.     What obligations and responsibilities under traditional law have been or could be impacted? How the obligations and responsibilities reflected in native title rights and interests? What consequences or potential or perceived consequences could arise as a result of the native title holders’ failure to perform those obligations and responsibilities? What effect does this have on physical and mental health, spirituality and/or membership to a society?

f.      What might be the effects on future generations?

g.     To what extent could there be positive effects on the native title holders and their connection?

55.  Presumably in reflecting on his experiences in Timber Creek, in 2018, Dr Palmer summarised the anthropologist’s role in a native title compensation claim as “to provide understandings of how the pain and suffering might be manifest as well as how such emotional distress develops from the alienation of land.”[42]


56.  He has also identified three fundamental research questions (that in our view should be considered when briefing an expert) and that we summarise here:[43]

a.     Are you able to demonstrate the spiritual relationship between the native title holders and their country?

b.     Do proprietary rights in country extend to the management of country, and include the exercise of duties and responsibilities; and

c.     Demonstrate any emotional distress and suffering that would be caused by the inability to exercise rights and interests and/or duties and obligations.

57.  As discussed above at [18] and [19] above, the High Court’s approach to assessing cultural loss was intuitive, and gave regard to assessing that loss to a value that would be considered fair and just in the Australian community. While Timber Creek does not provide a prescribed method or process for this intuitive task of assessing cultural loss, it is worth noting that the NSW Valuer General has adopted an approach that involves the assessment of: [44]

a.     the forms and number of forms of cultural loss identified;

b.     the significance of each of the forms of loss identified in consultation with the claimant, preferably on country; and

c.     the whole of the evidence.

What could the parties do to reach an agreement on cultural loss?

Processes and tips

58.  There are several processes that parties can use to support evidencing and assessing cultural loss, including:

a.     exchanging anthropological reports, preferably with an agreed terms of reference;

b.     provision of witness evidence;

c.     exchanging pleadings (for example Statements of Issues, Facts and Contentions), with a view to narrowing issues in dispute;

d.     an inquiry under s 54A of the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth); and

e.     mediation, with an aim to support the exchange of information.

59.  It is important to note that none of these processes are new, and they are in fact common pre-trial processes.

60.  Important reminders relevant to cultural loss include:

a.     Respect and sensitivity: there is a chance that there can be initial misunderstandings amongst participants of the law and process. This is particularly the case for participants who may have previously been familiar with the process for evidencing connection in a native title claim, but less familiar with the process for evidencing damage to connection in a compensation claim. It can also often be tricky to talk about terms like ‘compensation’ and ‘loss’ to Aboriginal witnesses, especially in these settings. Practitioners have an ethical and professional obligation to treat issues with sensitivity and respect, as well as to manage expectations of participants from the outset.

b.     Getting on-country and COVID-19: there is an obvious need to comply with directors and to keep communities safe against the risks of COVID-19. Topics relating to cultural loss however require context that can only be achieved by being on country. Successful on-country fieldwork requires a combination of thoughtful pre-planning, but also a high-level of on-ground flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. This is easier said than done.

61.  The claimants will play a crucial role in any meaningful agreement-making process on native title compensation. In turn, their evidence will play central importance in the process for claimants and the State or Territory to reach an agreement on native title compensation.

62.  When working with native title holders, key questions you may want to explore in relation to cultural loss include:

a.     Connection to country and rights and interests:

                                               i.     What was their connection before the act compared to now? What has changed?

                                              ii.     What is the impact on any restricted access, locked gates or new roads?

                                             iii.     How have these acts changed what can be done?

                                             iv.     To what extent have the native title holders’ participated in or managed the relevant act?

b.     Law and culture:

                                               i.     What is the correct process for development? How should native title holders’ be consulted? How should decisions be made?

                                              ii.     How has the conduct of meetings and ceremonies changed?

                                             iii.     What is the impact on teaching law and culture?

                                             iv.     To what extent have native title holders’ been able to fulfil their obligations to protect country? What is the damage to reputation for the failure to do so?

                                              v.     What are the physical or spiritual consequences of not being able to fulfil cultural obligations?

c.     Environment:

                                               i.     What changes have there been to access to country?

                                              ii.     What changes have there been to human presence and interaction with sites?

                                             iii.     What changes have there been to the flora and fauna?

                                             iv.     What changes have there been to water?

                                              v.     Has there been any land clearing?

                                             vi.     Has machinery been used on the environment?

                                            vii.     Are there any other visible changes?

                                           viii.     Are there parts of the country that needs repairing?

d.     Feelings:

                                               i.     What has been the native title holders’ response to development on country?

                                              ii.     How may the old people feel?

                                             iii.     Has there been any increased conflict because of the act?

                                             iv.     Has there been any positive impact of the act?


63.  There has been general policy support for an agreement making process to resolve native title compensation claims. For example, the National Indigenous Australians Agency’s principles for native title compensation, endorsed in principle by State and Territory native title ministers, state that ‘while litigation may in some cases be necessary and appropriate, governments will use their best efforts to settle native title compensation matters by agreement where possible.’[45]

64.  However, we suggest that until there is a national agreement on funding the process for, and possibly settlement of, resolving native title compensation, it is unlikely that a national approach will be adopted.

65.  There are several claims in waiting, including at least three large claims in South Australia. Many others are likely being prepared, noting that the gathering of evidence must precede filing. Native Title Representative Bodies and Service Providers are coordinating for appropriate test cases. In this context, it is likely that the filing of claims will be necessary to ‘trigger’ the appropriate resourcing of agreement making, in order to meet the increase in any pre-trial mediation of claims.

66.  The evidencing of cultural loss will become increasingly difficult overtime. This is because more time will have passed since compensable acts in question. There will be a need to adopt a different approach to witnesses in native title consent determination evidence, and the questions they are asked. We will also likely see an increase in the use of preservation of evidence processes after the determination of native title that focus on cultural loss.


67.  This article has:

a.     summarised the relevance of cultural loss as a component to native title compensation, the legal principles that underpin it;

b.     provided examples of the process that has, and that can be, adopted to evidence and assess cultural loss; and

c.     identified tips and helpful processes for parties to reach an agreement on native title compensation claims.

68.  Timber Creek and other determinations are an important starting point when considering how best to evidence and assess cultural loss. However, the case law is still developing in this area, and the current authorities still leave many questions unanswered. While we now understand the components to the assessment of a native title compensation claim, there is still no clear guidance on the most appropriate methods and processes for evidencing and evaluating those claims. In any case, each case will need to depend on its facts.

69.  Anthropologists will likely continue to play an increasingly important role in evidencing the extent of cultural loss. However, firsthand witness evidence will remain crucial, particularly where native title compensation claims are sought to be resolved by agreement.

70.  Existing pre-trial processes can be utilised to reach an agreement on native title compensation. Such processes will reflect those used in relation to the resolution of native title claims generally.



[1] For more information about active and determined native title compensation claims, see the National Native Title Tribunal Website: http://www.nntt.gov.au/searchRegApps/NativeTitleClaims/Pages/default.aspx.

[2] Northern Territory v Mr A Griffiths (decd) and Lorraine Jones obh of Ngaliwurru and Nungali Peoples (2019) 269 CLR 1 (Timber Creek), [84].

[3] In 2019, Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu filed the Galarrwuy Yunupingu (on behalf of the Gumatj Clan or Estate Group) NTD 42 of 2019 native title compensation claim in respect to compensable acts that occurred in the Gove Peninsula in the 1960s.

[4] An example includes the Gift Lake Métis Settlement in Canada.

[5] Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (the Constitution), s 51(xxxi).

[6] Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (NTA), ss 51(1) & (2).

[7] Timber Creek, [84].

[8] Timber Creek, [154].

[9] Note that, in general principles for the compensation applying to the compulsory acquisition of land, ‘solatium’ refers to that non-economic element of the compensation whereby a party is compelled to give up a piece of land that they would not have otherwise taken to market. The party’s unwillingness to take the land to market indicates the fact that the value of that land that the party is greater than the market value. Solatium is often capped at 10% of the market value of the land, as is the case in Victoria and Western Australia. See Land Acquisition and Compensation Act 1986 (Vic), s 44 & Land Administration act 1997 (WA), s 241(8) & (9).

[10] Timber Creek, [53].

[11] Timber Creek, [44].

[12] Timber Creek, [156].

[13] Mansfield J, Griffiths v Northern Territory (No 3) (2016) 337 ALR 362, [313].

[14] Timber Creek, [237].

[15] Timber Creek, [216].

[16] Timber Creek, [218].

[17] Timber Creek, [219].

[18] Timber Creek, [219].

[19] Timber Creek, [230].

[20] Timber Creek, [207].

[21] Pamela Faye McGrath, ‘Native Title Anthropology after the Timber Creek Decision’, Land, Rights, Laws: Issues of Native Title 6(5): 1-5, 1.

[22] Mansfield J, Griffiths v Northern Territory (No 3) (2016) 337 ALR 362, [368].

[23] For examples of these forms of cultural loss, see ‘Review of Forms of Cultural Loss and the Process and Method for Quantifying Compensation for Compulsory Acquisition’, January 2022 https://www.valuergeneral.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/230300/VG_JT_Review_of_Forms_of_Cultural_Loss.pdf, 36-37.

[24] Timber Creek, [180]

[25] Timber Creek, [172]

[26] See Palmer K, 235.

[27] See Palmer K, 234.

[28] Mansfield J, Griffiths v Northern Territory (No 3) (2016) 337 ALR 362, [350].

[29] Timber Creek, [202].

[30] Timber Creek, [225].

[31] Timber Creek, [225].

[32] Timber Creek, [180]

[33] De Rose v State of South Australia [2013] (De Rose Hill) FCA 988, [37].

[34] As mentioned at paragraphs 37 and 38, the quantum was for a full and agreed settlement amount, and there was no particular agreement about a cultural loss component.

[35] De Rose Hill, [34].

[36] De Rose Hill, [35].

[37] De Rose Hill, [43]..

[38] De Rose Hill, [47].

[39] De Rose Hill, [49]-[56].

[40] De Rose Hill, [57]-[62].

[41] De Rose Hill, [63]-[67].

[42] Palmer K, Australian Native Title Anthropology: Strategic Practice, the Law and the State, ANU Press, 2018, 234.  

[43] Palmer K, 234-238.

[44] See the approach to assessing cultural loss adopted by the NSW Valuer General in ‘Review of Forms of Cultural Loss and the Process and Method for Quantifying Compensation for Compulsory Acquisition’,  January 2022, https://www.valuergeneral.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/230300/VG_JT_Review_of_Forms_of_Cultural_Loss.pdf, 40.

[45] ‘National Guiding Principles for Native Title Compensation Agreement Making’, National Indigenous Australians Agency’, National Indigenous Australians Agency, 22 November 2021 https://www.niaa.gov.au/resource-centre/indigenous-affairs/national-guiding-principles-native-title-compensation-agreement-making, 1.

What is a native title ‘Future Act’?

This factsheet explains future acts.

A future act is a proposal to do something on land or waters that affects native title rights and interests. Examples of future acts include mining tenements, public infrastructure, water licences, and the compulsory acquisition of land.

The Native Title Act sets out the rights that a native title party has when a future act is proposed. These are called “procedural rights” and depending on the type of future act being proposed, can include:

  • The right to be notified
  • The right to comment
  • The right to be consulted
  • The right to object, or
  • The right to negotiate.

Under the Native Title Act, a native title party does not have the right to veto a future act from being done. The highest procedural right is the right to negotiate an agreement about the future act.


The factsheet is available here.

Announcement of Stage Two of the Indigenous Voice to “Parliament” Co-design process

On 30 October 2020, The Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP (Mr Wyatt) announced the beginning of the Indigenous Voice co-design process. The Indigenous voice co-design Process Interim Report (the Report) was handed to the Hon Ken Wyatt in October by the Senior Advisory group.

On 9 January 2021, the Government launched stage two of the co-design process by releasing the interim report and beginning a four-month consultation process about the proposed voice models.

Individuals, communities and organisations are invited to provide feedback either by completing a survey or entering a submission. Submissions close on 31 March 2021 and the survey will close at the end of the engagement period on 9 May 2021.

This article summarises the proposals and responses.


Currently, there are proposals for (1) a Local and Regional Voice and (2) a National Voice:

Local and Regional Voice Proposal:

That a regional level governance structure:

  • Be designed and led by communities
  • Provide advice to all levels of government to make plans on how to meet community aspirations and deliver on local priorities
  • Provide local views to the National Voice where this informs national issues.

National Voice Proposal:

That a national body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that:

  • Could provide advice to the Australian Parliament and Government on relevant laws, policies, and programs.
  • Could engage early on with Australian Parliament and Government in the development of relevant policies and laws.”[1]

Further detail on proposed Local and Regional Voice structure

There is no requirement for the local and regional voice to have a set structure. Different regions can create structures that are best suited to their local community. The report proposes 25-35 local and regional voice regions across Australia.

The recommendation is a flexible principals-based framework. This could include the following features:

  • Clear ways for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities, and organisations in the region to get involved and have more of a say.
  • Allow for local priorities to be addressed at the local level.
  • An agreed way to work together in partnership with governments (e.g. partnership meetings)

Further detail on proposed National Voice Structure

Membership for the National Voice could happen in two different ways:

  • ‘Structurally linked’ – selected from local and regional voices or
  • ‘Directly elected’ – where elections are held for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to elect national voice members.

Members would represent their States, Territories and the Torres Strait Islands.

The National voice could include the following features:

  • Consist of up to 20 members, with guaranteed gender balance of members.
  • Include Youth and Disability Advisory Groups to ensure voices of these groups are heard.
  • Connect with Local and Regional Voices to provide views from local communities.
  • Work with existing bodies structures and organisations.
  • Advise on national matters that are critically important to the social spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Response to the Report

In response to the Report, Mr Wyatt noted that “the best outcomes are achieved when Indigenous Australians are at the centre of decision‑making. We know that for too long decision making treated the symptoms rather than the cause.”[2] This sentiment has been echoed in media, political and academic conversation surrounding the public release of the report.

In October 2020, prior to the release of the report, Ms Pat Turner, Co-Chairperson of the Joint Council in Closing the Gap, cautioned against the risk of an Indigenous voice to parliament, as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the heart, being subverted into a “voice to government”.  Ms Turner warned that the latter is “likely to be disjointed, conflicted, and thus counterproductive”.[3]

Ms Turner, who is also a member of the senior advisory group, elucidated that an essential foundational element is to prevent “the indigenous voice from being applied only at the discretion of governments when and on what governments determine”.[4]

Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble Aboriginal woman and the Balnaves Chair in constitutional law, echoes Ms Turner’s concerns regarding the interim report preferencing a “voice to government”. However, Professor Davis is very encouraging of the co-design process and highlights that “self-determination is at the core of democratic governance.”[5] Professor Davis notes that the important consultation process should not be muddied by a “legislate first, enshrine later debate” and emphasises the need to enshrine the voice to parliament in the constitution by referring to it as a ‘vision of unity’.[6]

Mr Tom Calma, the Co-chair of the senior advisory group, commented that “the key thing is to create a forum in which dialogue between political decision makers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can take place because it doesn’t happen at the moment and it needs to happen.”[7]

Information and documents regarding the Indigenous Voice co-design process can be accessed from the NIAA website.


[1] See https://voice.niaa.gov.au/.

[2] The Hon Ken Whyatt AM MP. ‘Have your say on Indigenous Voice proposals’ (Media Release, 9 January 2021) https://ministers.pmc.gov.au/wyatt/2021/have-your-say-indigenous-voice-proposals.

[3] Hurst, Daniel. ‘Indigenous voice to parliament: Pat Turner urges PM to show ‘a bit of backbone’, The Guardian (online, 30 September 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/30/indigenous-voice-to-parliament-pat-turner-urges-pm-to-show-a-bit-of-backbone.

[4] Hurst, Daniel. ‘Indigenous voice to parliament: Pat Turner urges PM to show ‘a bit of backbone’, The Guardian (online, 30 September 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/30/indigenous-voice-to-parliament-pat-turner-urges-pm-to-show-a-bit-of-backbone.

[5]Davis, M. ‘Our Indigenous voice is just waiting to be heard’. The Australian (online, 16 January 2021) < https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/our-indigenous-voice-is-just-waiting-to-be-heard/news-story/1f8c05d20d90bd11bb535e34e04df64c>.

[6] Davis, M. ‘Our Indigenous voice is just waiting to be heard’. The Australian (online, 16 January 2021) < https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/our-indigenous-voice-is-just-waiting-to-be-heard/news-story/1f8c05d20d90bd11bb535e34e04df64c>.

[7] Dingwall, D. ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament would create much-needed dialogue with government: Tom Calma’. New Castle Herald (online, 15 January 2021) < https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/7085668/how-indigenous-voice-to-parliament-works/>.

MPS Law grows to help with new engagements

MPS Law is pleased to have been recently engaged on two new important projects


Adnyamanthanha Traditional Landowners Association (ATLA) has recently engaged MPS Law as its legal representatives. ATLA is the registered native title body corporate for native title land in and around the Flinders Ranges in South Australia’s mid-north. ATLA is currently in special administration. We are looking forward to helping the Adnyamanthanha People get ATLA back to an empowered and self-determining native title corporation. Our first steps are to work with ATLA’s special administrators and previous legal representative to review and transition files.

The Katherine Families native title claim (NTD46/2018) has also recently engaged MPS Law as its legal representatives. The Katherine Families Claim is the registered native title claim for the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. The Katherine Families claim is overlapped by another native title claim. We are looking forward to assisting with the resolution of native title claims to promote the recognition and protection of native title rights. Our first steps are to work with the Katherine Families Claim’s previous lawyer to review and transition files, and, to ensure Court ordered processes are complied with.

The MPS Law Principal, Michael Pagsanjan, will be the primary contact for both matters.

We are thankful for the confidence expressed by new clients in engaging our services.

We think the law should be fair, clear and protect clients, and we are committed to our values to help our new clients get to where they want to go. To help achieve this, we have expanded our capacity by promoting an intern as an additional graduate lawyer (Jessica Black), and, employing a new legal intern (Matthew Del Corso). This will help to ensure all work – for existing and new clients – can continue to be of the highest standards and be completed as efficiently as possible.

For more information, please contact Michael Pagsanjan (michael@mpslaw.com.au).

Summary of SA Mining Regulation updates relating to native title

The Department for Energy and Mining (DEM) is undergoing a major review of South Australia’s Mining Act 1971 (SA) (the Mining Act). The review commenced in 2016, in parallel with the Stronger Partners Stronger Futures program. As a result of this review, the Statutes Amendments (Mineral Resources) Act 2019 (the Amendments) came into effect in October 2019. DEM has now released draft mining regulations to support the Amendments (the Draft Regulations). The Draft Regulations will come into effect in January 2021.


This article summarises key aspects of the draft updates, as they relate to native title and Aboriginal cultural heritage issues.

The Amendments aim to encourage early engagement with landowners and communities, to increase community access to information, and to improve the transparency of compliance and enforcement with the Act.

Part 9B of the Mining Act details how exploration and mining operations can be undertaken on native title land. This article sets out three areas that the Draft Regulations will affect native title holders.


a. the Mining Register

DEM administers and manages resource licences through a mining register on the DEM website (see See https://www.energymining.sa.gov.au/minerals/exploration/tenement_information/mining_register). The register contains information on permits, claims, leases and licences. Section 15AA of the Statutes Amendment (Mineral Resources) Act 2019 expands the type of dealings and the range of information that is required on the mining register.

The Draft Regulations aim to make the mining register more transparent and accessible by increasing public access to a broader range of information. Regulation 14 and Schedule 1 of the Draft Regulations support s 15AA of the Amendments by requiring the following information on the mining register:

  • mineral tenements (such as mineral claims, exploration licences, mining leases, retention leases, miscellaneous purpose licences and private mines) and their terms and conditions;
  • transfers of title;
  • dealings and agreements required to be registered under the Mining Act (e.g. waivers on exempt land, appointment of operators);
  • notices served to the registrar (e.g. notices of entry);
  • Warden’s court proceedings and decisions;
  • environmental directions; and
  • Other information required by Schedule 1 of the Draft Regulations.


b. Applications and renewals for exploration licences

To commence exploration operations, an applicant must apply for an exploration licence under s 29A of the Mining Act 1971. The application must be in a manner and form determined by the Minister (Mining Act 1971 (SA), s 29(1)).

The Draft Regulations set out the minimum level of information needed to accompany an exploration licence application. The Draft Regulations aim to expand the information required to accompany an exploration application, to demonstrate that the applicant has the necessary capability and resources to operate the licence in compliance with the law and their social requirements.

In particular, regulation 23 requires that the following information be included in an application or renewal for an exploration licence:

  • a statement outlining the intended exploration operations for the first two years of operations, including the estimated expenditure of those operations (sub-regulation 23(1)(a));
  • a current technical, operational and financial capabilities and resources statement (sub-regulation 23(1)(b));
  • a statement nominating the principal minerals sought and the exploration model employed (sub-regulation 23(1)(c));
  • a statement outlining the applicant’s history of non-compliance under the Act or the equivalent act any other State or Territory (sub-regulation 23(1)(d)); and
  • a statement declaring whether the applicant or a related body has within the preceding 3 months held an exploration licence in any part of the application area (sub-regulation 23(1)(e)).


c. Programs for environment protection and rehabilitation

An exploration or mining licence holder must have an operating approval known as a Program for Environment Protection and Rehabilitation (PEPR) before commencing any operations (Mining Act 1971 (SA), s 70B(2)).

Regulation 62 promotes early engagement with landowners (including native title holders) by requiring the licence holder, when submitting the PEPR to the Minister for assessment, to include information on the consultation undertaken in connection to the expected environment outcomes under the PEPR.

The information must detail the licence holder’s reasonable steps to engage the landowner, including:

  • who was consulted;
  • any issues or concerns raised; and
  • any steps the licence holder proposes to take to address those concerns.

Early engagement is a key control to ensure that explorers comply with their obligations of Aboriginal heritage management under the PEPR, and to determine whether low impact exploration may impact on Aboriginal heritage. To meet the PEPR requirements, licence holders will need to factor in early engagement in their planning process.

By requiring licence holders to document any controls agreed on with native title groups to minimise impacts on heritage, the Draft Regulations encourage the licence holder to consider how they will notify and engage with native title groups regarding their planned operations.


Further commentary on early engagement of native title groups

Early engagement is integral to ensuring native title groups have the opportunity to contribute and participate in the mining application process. Native title groups have the most comprehensive understanding of Aboriginal heritage matters on their country. Their participation is essential in the assessment of the potential impacts of proposed mineral operations and appropriate measures to avoid impacts to Aboriginal heritage.

For more information, contact Reade Allison (reade@mpslaw.com.au) or Michael Pagsanjan (michael@mpslaw.com.au).

Case note on Federal Court decision about native title documents

The access and control of documents produced in the course of native title negotiations and proceedings bring with them important considerations of copyright, confidentiality and legal professional privilege.


More information on these issues can be found here.

More generally however, the management of these documents raises a significant question as to the rights of native title holders and claimants in relation to native title documents. This issue was addressed in the Federal Court Case Tommy on behalf of the Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v State of Western Australia (No 2) [2019] FCA 1551.



On 23 May 2019, the Jurruru Applicant (‘the Applicant’) was granted leave to issue two subpoenas to the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) in connection to the trial of a a disputed overlap area in the Pilbara, Western Australia, between the Yinhawangka Gobawarrah native title claim (WAD490/2016), the Jurruru #1 native title claim (WAD6007/2000) and the Jurruru #2 native title claim (WAD327/2012).

It had been identified that YMAC held anthropological reports relevant to the overlap area that were not made available to the Applicant. The Applicant therefore issued the two subpoenas to compel production of those materials. The first subpoena sought a draft anthropological report prepared by Dr Anna Kenny and dated May 2011 (‘the Dr Kenny Report’). The second subpoena sought two reports: an overlap report and a connection report, both prepared by Dr Lee Sackett and dated 2010 (‘the Dr Sackett Reports’).

YMAC made objections to the production of documents under the two subpoenas. Although at hearing YMAC withdrew its objection to the production of the Dr Kenny Report, it maintained its objection to the production of the Dr Sackett Reports on the basis that legal professional privilege and without prejudice privilege attached to both reports.



Justice Mortimer considered:

1.  Can the claims of privilege be made and maintained in respect to the documents over which the second subpoena was filed?

2.  In the context of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (NTA), who holds the asserted privilege?


Legal commentary

Can a claim of legal professional privilege be made and sustained for the documents?

Legal professional privilege (LPP) is a legal principle that protects from disclosure the confidentiality of communications between clients and their legal representative made for the dominant purpose of legal advice and services, or made for use in current or anticipated litigation.[1] The dominant purpose is to be assessed at the time of a document’s creation. [2] LPP can be impliedly waived by the privilege holder through any action that is inconsistent with the confidentiality of the communication between lawyer and client. [3]

Her Honour found that the connection report did not attract LPP, as the report was produced for the purpose of negotiating a favourable consent determination, rather than for the dominant purpose of use in legal proceedings. As part of any consent determination, the State would have had to provide the report to the Federal Court to satisfy the Court of the basis on which the determination were to be made. Therefore, the creation of the report had not contemplated that it would remain undisclosed, and even were LPP to be implied, it would have been waived once the report was provided to the State in the course of negotiating a consent determination.

Her Honour further found that LPP did not apply to the overlap report. Importantly, YMAC had refused to provide access to the reports to particular clients. YMAC furthermore took no reasonable steps to inform the clients of the report’s contents. This behaviour suggested that the report had not been created for the dominant purpose of providing legal advice to a client.

Can a claim of without prejudice privilege be made and sustained for the documents?

Without prejudice privilege (WPP) is a legal principle that protects from disclosure statements made between parties in the course of genuinely attempting to resolve a dispute before it goes to trial.[4] The privilege encourages parties to settle their disputes without resort to litigation by ensuring that what is said in the course of negotiations will not later be used to one’s detriment in the course of proceedings.

Her Honour found that the creation of the connection report had contemplated uses other than for the negotiation of a determination of native title. In particular, it would have been reasonably contemplated that the State may have used the material in the report to seek advice from its experts on the overlap issue. Therefore, WPP would not have applied.

Her Honour further found that the overlap report had been created for multiple purposes, including purposes inconsistent with the maintenance of privilege. The report did not form part of any communications attempting to resolve the overlap proceedings, and therefore was not subject to WPP.[5] Importantly, if WPP were to apply, it would have been waived by the fact that pre-existing anthropological reports and other connected materials had already been exchanged between the parties.

Who holds the asserted privilege in Native Title proceedings?

In relation to the second issue, her Honour found that the question of who holds the privilege is a question of fact, where LPP ‘is a privilege which exists between lawyer and client’ and ‘exists to protect the interests of the client.’[6] In light of the structure and purpose of the NTA, her Honour concluded that the relationship of lawyer and client in native title proceedings exists as that between those persons who jointly form the applicant and their legal representative.[7] As the party to the proceedings, it is moreover the applicant who holds any WPP.[8]

The applicant to a native title proceeding is the person or group of people who has been authorised by a native title claim group to make a native title application. The applicant is empowered by the NTA to deal with all matters arising under the NTA in relation to that application.[9]

Who holds the asserted privilege after the determination of Native Title?

Looking to the post-determination context, her Honour concluded that a registered native title prescribed body corporate (RNTBC) holds the asserted privilege. This is based in part on the fact that the NTA contemplates that native title be held by a legal person (i.e. a corporate entity), either on trust or as an agent for the common law holders.[10]



As a consequence of her findings in the present judgment, her Honour overruled YMAC’s objections to the production and inspection of the documents under the second subpoena. As such, the Jurruru applicant was granted leave to inspect and copy the reports.


Key takeaways

The role of the Applicant and PBC in holding privilege

Privilege is held between the persons jointly comprising the applicant and the lawyer.  Once native title is determined, privilege is transferred to the PBC as the ‘successor’ and the identifiable ‘client’ for the purposes of the maintenance of the privilege or its waiver. These findings should inform how native title documents are held and managed, giving consideration to the rights of applicants and PBCs in relation to those documents.

Risks attached to negotiations with the State

Parties entering into negotiations for a consent determination face the risk of losing privilege that may attach to connection materials when those materials are lodged to the State. In the present case, her Honour found that the connection report did not attract LPP as it was created for the dominant purpose of achieving a favourable consent determination with the State. The dominant purpose was not for use in legal proceedings proper, nor for the provision of legal advice. Instead, the document was created for purposes that would anticipate its provision to the Court to sufficiently satisfy the basis upon which a determination is to be made. A party to consent determination negotiations may therefore need to be satisfied that there is a reasonable prospect of a favourable outcome in the consent determination negotiations, unless the privilege to such reports need be claimed later.

Communications with clients

The findings in the present case demonstrate the importance of communicating legally-pertinent findings with the clients of native title proceedings. In particular, YMAC’s lack of communications with the clients about the contents of the Dr Sacket Reports, as well as YMAC’s refusal to allow access to the reports, demonstrated that the reports formed no part of any confidential communication endeavouring to resolve the overlapping claims. This in turn informed her Honour’s finding that LPP did not apply.

Such an implication may be significant in the context of the general practice in native title proceedings not to give clients access to reports. This leaves open the question of what level and kind of communication as to the contents of a report will be required to satisfy the dominant purpose of giving legal advice, and thereby to maintain privilege.

For further information, contact Michael Pagsanjan (michael@mpslaw.com.au).



[1] Evidence Act 1995 (Cth), s 118.

[2] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [110], citing Grant v Downs, Barwick CJ 677.

[3] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [165], citing DSE (Holdings) Pty Ltd v Intertan Inc [2003] FCA 384; 127 FCR 499, Allsop J [95].

[4] Evidence Act 1995 (Cth), s 131.

[5] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [218].

[6] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [37]–[38], citing Commissioner of Australian Federal Police v Propend Finance Pty Ltd [1997] HCA 3; 188 CLR 501, Gummow J [570].

[7] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [58].

[8] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [59].  See Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) s 84(2) (‘NTA’).

[9] NTA, s 62A.

[10] Yinhawangka Gobawarrah v WA [2019] FCA 1551 [60]. See NTA s 56.

What native title means in Australia

what is native title

Native title recognises the traditional rights and interests to land and waters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  It is a special kind of property right that is unlike any other right.

The evolution of native title

Native title was first recognised in the case of Mabo v Queensland (No 2), where the High Court held that traditional law and custom could be a basis for asserting a type of property right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Native title is now recognised under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (NTA) and defined under section 233(1) as:

The communal, group or individual rights and interests of Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders in relation to land or waters, where:  

  1. the rights and interests are possessed under the traditional laws acknowledged, and the traditional customs observed, by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; and
  2. the Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders, by those laws and customs, have a connection with the land and or waters; and
  3. the rights and interest are recognised by the common law of Australia.

Under section 227 of the NTA, ‘an act affects native title if it extinguishes native title rights and interests or if it is otherwise wholly or partly inconsistent with their continued existence, enjoyment or exercise.’

As such, native title will be extinguished where there is:

  1. a grant of freehold title;
  2. a grant of an ‘exclusive’ pastoral lease;
  3. a residential, commercial or community purpose lease;
  4. public works (for example building of a road).

How do you ‘prove’ native title?

The process required for proving native title is a complex and often very lengthy process.  The key elements required to ‘prove’ native title under the Australian legal system are:

  1. There exists an identifiable community or group connected with the land claimed.[1]
  2. Rights and interests are possessed under traditional laws and customs observed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.[2]
  3. By those laws and customs observed, there is a connection with the land or waters.[3]
  4. Those laws and customs have existed at the time of sovereignty and constitute rules observed and acknowledged within a society.[4]
  5. The laws and customs have continued substantially uninterrupted since sovereignty.[5]
  6. Those rights and interests haven’t been extinguished pursuant to section 237A of the NTA.

The Court needs evidence that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still have these rights.  This is referred to as ‘connection’ evidence and is usually the most contentious part of all native title claims if there is no extinguishment.


What are ‘native title’ rights?

If native title can be established, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will receive rights consistent with their specific traditional laws and customs.  These are often referred to as a ‘bundle of rights’.  Examples include the right to hunt, fish, gather food or teach law and custom on country.

Native title comes in two forms and may include ‘exclusive rights’, being the right to possess and occupy an area to the exclusion of others, and ‘non-exclusive rights’ where native title co-exists with non-Indigenous property rights or there is a shared interest with another party, meaning there is no right to control access to and use of the area.


What does native title provide?

When native title rights and interests are recognised, the NTA provides some protections so native title rights can be protected. This includes, for example, a right to negotiate on certain activities that may impact native title rights. However, native title does not provide native title holders with legal ‘ownership’ of land or waters where native title has been recognised.


Native title compensation

Where native title has been extinguished or impaired, the NTA provides a right for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to seek compensation. Under the NTA the Commonwealth, States and Territories are liable to pay compensation for ‘acts’ attributable to them such as the grant of freehold title and crown leases that happen after 1 October 1975.

Section 51 of NTA provides that compensation should be on ‘just terms’ to compensate the native title holders for any loss, diminution, impairment or other effect of the act on their native title rights and interests.

Native title compensation is difficult to prove and is uncertain.  To claim compensation, you need to:

  1. Identify the ‘act’ that you are claiming compensation for.
  2. Show that native title could have been recognised if it wasn’t for the ‘act’.
  3. Prove the ‘act’s’ impact on native title.
  4. Authorise a compensation claim.
  5. File a compensation claim in the Federal Court.

As the NTA currently stands it does not provide any guidance to Courts as to how compensation should be calculated.  The High Court however, recently heard the Timber Creek native title compensation appeals in September this year.  It is expected that a decision will provide some guidance about how to calculate compensation.


Difference with land rights and cultural heritage

Land rights involve statutory grants of land to Indigenous people through a land trust, Land Council or corporate entity.  Land rights legislation operates separately to the native title system.  Most land rights schemes pre-date Mabo (No 2) and the NTA.  The most well-known land rights legislation is the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.

Other land rights legislation includes the:

  • Aboriginal Land Act 1991 (Qld)
  • Torres Strait Islander Land Act 1991 (QLD)
  • Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW)
  • Aboriginal Land (Northcote Land) Act 1989 (Vic)
  • Aboriginal Land (Manatunga Land) Act 1992 (Vic)
  • Aboriginal Lands Act 1991 (Vic)
  • Aboriginal Land Trusts Act 1966 (SA)
  • Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (SA)
  • Maralinga Tjarutija Land Rights Act 1984 (SA)
  • Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas)

Cultural heritage laws are different to native title in that they seek to preserve and protect areas, objects or remains that are of specific significance to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.  In other words, land or sites may be of cultural value regardless of whether native title exists.

All states and territories have laws that protect Indigenous heritage they include:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 (Cth)
  • Heritage Act 2004 (ACT)
  • Heritage Objects Act 1991 (ACT
  • Heritage Act 1977 (NSW)
  • National Parks and Wildlife Amendment (Aboriginal Ownership) Act 1996 (NSW)
  • Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989 (NT)
  • Heritage Conservation Act 1991 (NT)
  • Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 (QLD)
  • Torres Strait Islander Cultural Heritage Act 2003 (QLD)
  • Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA)
  • Aboriginal Heritage Act 1975 (TAS)
  • Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (VIC)
  • Heritage Act 1994 (VIC)
  • Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA)


Further information

There remains over 200 unresolved native title claimant applications, each of which have complex issues that require careful consideration.

For more information, contact Michael Pagsanjan at michael@mpslaw.com.au.


[1] Mabo v Queensland (No 2) [1992] HCA 23 at [68] per Brennan J.

[2] Western Australia v Ward (2002) 76 ALRJ 1098 at [95].

[3] Mabo v Queensland (No 2) [1992] HCA 23 at [83] per Brennan J.

[4] Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria (2002) 77 ALJR 356 at [42], [46]; Daniel v Western Australia [2003] FCA 666 at [304].

[5] Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v Victoria (2002) 77 ALJR 356 at [87].

Case note on Federal Court decision on native title agreement

native title agreement

On 2 February 2017, the Full Federal Court in McGlade v Native Title Registrar [2017] FCAFC 10 ruled that native title agreements cannot be registered unless signed by all persons named as Applicants. This decision seriously undermines the Noongar native title settlement process in Western Australia, hailed to be an example for other regions to follow and the largest settlement of its type to-date. However, the decision is also likely to have far-reaching consequences for other native title agreements throughout Australia.


Broadly, the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) sets processes for resolving native title matters by agreement. This includes by native title groups ‘authorising’ – or agreeing to – Indigenous Land Use Agreements (commonly referred to as ‘ILUAs’). One of the main purposes of ILUAs is to create certainty, and this is achieved by a registration process. Once ILUAs are registered by the National Native Title Tribunal, they are then binding on all native title claimants and holders including those in the future. In practice, any benefits are usually withheld until the ILUA is registered.

To be registered, an area ILUA must be signed by all parties to the native title claim. Previous case law said that an area ILUA could still be registered even if not all of the persons named as the Applicant signed the agreement. The ‘Applicant’ is the name given to those persons who are ‘authorised’ – or approved – by the wider native title claim group to represent and progress the native title claim. That interpretation allowed for authorised agreements to be finalised and implemented, even if, for example:

  • Obtaining the signatures of all Applicants was impossible (including if an Applicant had passed away);
  • Obtaining the signatures of all Applicants was practically too difficult to achieve within a reasonable timeframe (including if an Applicant was unable to be contacted), or;
  • Obtaining the signatures of all Applicants was not feasible in the circumstances (including if an Applicant was refusing to sign for ulterior purposes that may not have been in the best interests of the wider native title group).
It is widely accepted that the native title group as a whole has the ‘ultimate authority’ of any native title claim. However, this decision shows that there has always been, and continues to be, legal and practical uncertainty between the role and power of the Applicant and the wider native title group.

The decision

The Full Federal Court decision was in relation to the South-West Noongar Settlement in Western Australia. The Full Federal Court (North and Barker JJ and in separate reasons Mortimer J), ruled that some of the settlement ILUAs that form part of the Noongar Settlement could not be registered because they were not signed by all of the Applicants.

Possible consequences

The decision seriously undermines the progress of the Noongar settlement. It is highly likely that ongoing litigation relating to these ILUAs will significantly delay any implementation of that settlement. The decision may also cause any parties considering a similar regional-type settlement to reconsider the appropriateness of such a settlement.

Of greater concern is the possible consequences this decision may have on other native title agreements, including those Area ILUAs are already purportedly registered.

According to the National Native Title Tribunal, there were 854 registered Area ILUAs in Australia as at 31 December 2016 (see National Native Title Tribunal “Indigenous Land Use Agreements: As at 31 December 2016″, available at http://www.nntt.gov.au/Maps/ILUAs_map.pdf accessed on 2 February 2017).  For example, of those 854 Area ILUAs, there is likely to have been agreements that were registered in circumstances where not all Applicants signed the ILUA. Indeed, such circumstances are not uncommon. If so, there is legal uncertainty over any such agreements. For example, even if any such agreement is still binding on those who signed the agreement as a matter of contract law, there may be a risk of de-registration, which undermines the longer term native title certainty of the agreement. In addition, there may be a risk that the benefits provided or activities that were consented to – including development activities like mining – were unlawful.

This uncertainty may create risks for any projects and may give rise to additional litigation.

A further concerning consequence is the perception that those persons named as Applicants may ‘veto’ ILUAs, even if they are accepted by the wider native title group.

In other words, there is a legitimate concern that this decision allows a single Applicant to unilaterally decide not to enter an agreement, even if the wider community accept the agreement.

However, there are existing processes to reduce that risk. That process is commonly referred to as ‘a section 66B application’, and is the process in the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) to remove applicants, including so-called ‘dissident’ applicants who have acted outside their authority by refusing to sign an agreement even if they have been instructed by the wider group to do so. The decision highlighted the significance of these existing processes that remain available to native title groups who may encounter such problems. A natural consequence of this decision, however, will be that there will be an increase in such applications to change and replace the persons comprising the Applicant.

This may, in turn, result in delays to agreement making and could lead to what was previously accepted to be ‘internal’ disputes within native title groups being publicly argued in the Federal Court.


Subject to any application to the High Court for special leave to appeal, or change to the legislation, it is clear that the decision fundamentally changes the previously accepted interpretation of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and the associated practices for signing ILUAs.

Above all, the decision reinforces the complexity of native title.

Any party to a native title matter should always seek advice before entering into an agreement. Any party who is unsure about the possible consequences of this decision on their particular circumstances should similarly seek expert advice to reduce the risks of any adverse impacts to their interests.


This decision is the subject of subsequent judicial and legislative decisions, summarised elsewhere on the MPS Law website.

For more information, contact MPS Law Principal Michael Pagsanjan on (08) 8127 8090 or michael@mpslaw.com.au