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Case summary: Mabo v Queensland

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Overturning the doctrine of terra nullius: The Mabo Case

The Mabo decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia by overturning the doctrine of terra nullius (land belonging to no-one) on which British claims to possession of Australia were based. This recognition inserted the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law. The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case recognised the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait. The Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788. In recognising that Indigenous people in Australia had a prior title to land taken by the Crown since Cook's declaration of possession in 1770, the Court held that this title exists today in any portion of land where it has not legally been extinguished. The decision of the High Court was swiftly followed by the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) which attempted to codify the implications of the decision and set out a legislative regime under which Australia’s Indigenous people could seek recognition of their native title rights.