Customary Methods of Dispute Resolution

692. A Range of Mechanisms. In many, if not all, Aboriginal communities there exist methods for social control and the resolution of disputes. Their effectiveness and the ways in which they operate vary. In some localities reliance is placed on the accepted authority of older men and women, and there are long-established procedures. for resolving disputes. These seem to have been affected by the fact of living in or around cities or country towns or otherwise in contact with the Western economy and society. A particular factor has been the intrusion of the general legal system. Although Aboriginal customary laws do not operate in isolation, they have proved remarkably resilient, and able to adapt to changing circumstances.[953] But it should not be assumed that what may seem obvious problems of ‘law and order’ in Aboriginal communities (e.g. control of alcohol, or petrol sniffing and associated juvenile offending) are regulated by Aboriginal customary laws, or that the attempt to extend the latter’s scope to deal with introduced problems is, regarded as desirable by Aborigines themselves.

693. Research on Dispute Resolution. Little research has been done on Aboriginal dispute resolving mechanisms. Intensive study over an extended period of time would be necessary to gain a clear understanding of ways of resolving disputes, and even then it would be dangerous to generalise or to apply the results of such research to other communities. Nonetheless, it is possible to make some general comments on existing Aboriginal dispute-resolving mechanisms, based on the Commission’s discussions and field work and on other available information.[954] Three examples of existing justice mechanisms are set out below as illustrations of the ways in which three different communities, at Edward River (Qld), Yirrkala (NT) and Strelley (WA), function. General implications may not be able to be drawn from these different, widely separated communities. The situation recorded at a particular time will change, and profound changes of various kinds have occurred. But this material is the best available.