Publication Details

This article was originally published as Mohr, R, Shifting Ground: Context and Change in Two Australian Legal Systems, International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 15(1), 2002, 1-24. Original article available here.


Indigenous land claims in Australia have brought Indigenous law into contact with the Australian common law, changing some of the terms of each of these systems of law. By tracing these contacts back to one of the first engagements, when the Yolngu people of northern Australia framed a petition to parliament in pictorial descriptions of their law, I explore the means by which changes have occurred. This is characterised as a process of mutual framings and re-framings. The delicate and contentious issue of meaning change in Yolngu law and in Australian common law's dealings with Indigenous law is examined in order to illuminate the ways in which meaning change may be understood in an epistemological and semiotic framework. The most recent common law decisions in land claims have begun to recognise a mutual relationship between common law and Indigenous law. This has occurred most notably at the edges of western law's epistemological practice, in its dealings with historical and Indigenous sources. The success of Yolngu epistemological and legal engagement with the dominant Australian society and its law suggests a means of understanding some of the ways in which meaning may change in response to changing contexts. This relationship can be seen through Yolngu categories of "inside" and "outside", or in terms of the cultural context of semiotic interpretation. Meanings may change within each frame, not through the simple incorporation or adoption of "outside" concepts, but through shifts in the broader context of meaning.

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