2.1          The Terms of Reference ask the ALRC to examine the ‘connection requirements, relating to the recognition and scope of native title’. In that context, this chapter outlines a framework for review of the relevant provisions of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘Native Title Act’).

2.2          This chapter first places native title law in Australia in an historical context by reference to the derivation of native title in common law jurisprudence. It canvasses the factors leading to the recognition of native title in Mabo v Queensland [No 2] (‘Mabo [No 2]’).[1] The second section discusses the Native Title Act and the subsequent interpretation of s 223 of the Act.

2.3          The ALRC considers that the ‘laws and customs’ model for defining native title fulfils the important function of recognising native title, but it contributes to a complex legal test for connection in the Native Title Act that calls for considered reform. Statutory construction of s 223 of the Native Title Act has expanded the requirements for proof of native title.[2]

2.4          The ALRC’s recommendations retain the framework of native title derived from Mabo [No 2] but address entrenched difficulties in the proof of native title. The recommendations are directed to a specific range of connection requirements to better accord with the Preamble and guiding objectives of the Native Title Act.

2.5          The recommendations deal with a central problem that faces the native title claims system—how to allow for traditional laws and customs to evolve in response to circumstances brought about by European settlement, while ensuring that the pre-sovereign origins of laws and customs are retained. This problem is reflected in the dissenting judgment of Black CJ in the Full Federal Court in Yorta Yorta:

native title will no longer exist once its foundation has disappeared by reason of the disappearance of any real acknowledgment of traditional law and real observance of traditional customs. Where such circumstances exist, the claimed rights and interests will no longer be possessed under what are truly ‘traditional’ laws acknowledged and customs observed.

It is wrong, however, to see ‘traditional’ as, of its nature, a concept concerned with what is dead, frozen or otherwise incapable of change.[3]

2.6          The ALRC acknowledges, however, that rigorous testing of connection requirements is important to secure transparency for governments and third parties, to ensure the integrity of the claims system and to facilitate identification of the appropriate members of a claim group.

Recognition as the foundation for native title

2.7          This chapter traces the development of legal principles which have shaped the ‘connection requirements’ for determining native title and outlines implications for the proof of native title. [4]

2.8          Recognition of native title holds great significance for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, as reflected in the Preamble and objects of the Native Title Act.

2.9          The concept can be thought of as

the metaphorical result of applying rules whereby rights and interests are defined at common law as having vested, at the time of annexation, in the members of an Aboriginal society by reason of its traditional laws and customs and the way in which they define its relationship to land and waters. It is not a ‘mere’ metaphor. Its choice reflects a desire to give effect legally to the human reality involved in the ordinary meaning of ‘recognition’.[5]

2.10       Submissions to the Inquiry emphasised that Mabo [No 2] has been accepted as a principled platform for dealing with historical injustice drawing upon international law.[6] The ‘recognition’ model for proof of native title adopted from Mabo [No 2] however entails particular constraints.[7] Basically, these arise from two sources. First, inherent constraints arise from a recognition and continuity model that emphasises a traditional laws and customs framework for proving pre-existing native title rights and interests. These difficulties are increased as the system of recognition of rights and interests under the Native Title Act has been implemented many years after European settlement.

2.11       Secondly, and building on this model, is the construction of the definition of native title under the Act, in a manner which has added or amplified requirements such as ‘traditional’, ‘continuity’ and ‘society’ (see Chapters 4–7) and contributed to increasing specificity in the scope of the native title rights and interests that are recognised (Chapter 8). Under the ALRC’s recommended reforms, the central function of recognition is retained to ensure that the basis of native title is maintained. Recognition may be thought of as lying

at the heart of the common law of native title and the Act … It is embedded in a matrix of rules defining the circumstances in which recognition will be accorded to native title rights and interests and those in which it will be withheld or withdrawn. The idea of recognition operates in a realm of legal discourse. It may be seen as a kind of translation of aspects of an indigenous society’s relationship to land and waters into a set of rights and interests which exist under non-indigenous laws.[8]

2.12       Recognition of native title also remains significant, as the common law ‘will, by the ordinary processes of law and equity, give remedies in support of the relevant rights and interests to those who hold them’.[9] The Native Title Act is the mechanism for the recognition and protection of native title.[10]