A looming legal battle could have implications for native title claims across Australia.

The High Court is set to adjudicate on a case brought by the late Gumatj clan leader Yunupingu against the Commonwealth over the Gove bauxite mine. 

This case, Yunupingu v The Commonwealth, could usher in a new era for land rights, focusing on the protection of ‘dreaming’ sites, and could have a profound impact on the legal landscape.

Labelled as the third seminal land rights case after Mabo (1992) and Timber Creek (2019), this litigation challenges the validity of land grants in the Northern Territory from 1911 until 1978, a period before the NT gained self-government. 

The move has raised the prospect of the federal government having to devise a statutory scheme to manage an anticipated surge in claims, particularly concerning cultural issues, which have also been highlighted in recent disputes involving energy corporations such as Santos and Woodside.

At the heart of the case is the accusation that the Commonwealth failed to provide “just terms” compensation to the Gumatj people upon leasing land to Nabalco in 1968, along with other actions dating back to 1911. 

The court will also review the arrangement where the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans have received mining royalties since 1978 and a substantial agreement made with Rio Tinto in 2011.

The importance of this case is underscored by its examination of compensation for spiritual and cultural loss, a concept solidified in the Timber Creek decision (which awarded significant sums to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples for the construction of infrastructure on their ancestral lands). 

This precedent has since encouraged further claims, including a $290 billion claim by the Noongar people of Western Australia.

Recent judicial decisions, such as a Federal Court ruling in favour of Santos against Tiwi Islanders' claims that a proposed gas pipeline would harm sacred dreaming stories, highlight the complexity and evolving nature of native title issues. 

The Gumatj lawsuit, with Yunupingu's last name leading for cultural reasons, is set for a three-day hearing in Darwin in August, marking only the second instance the High Court has conducted proceedings there. 

The decision to appeal by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, following the Gumatj's success in the full Federal Court, emphasises the case's significance and the government's desire for legal clarity in this area.