Home > Historical note


Eddie Koiki Mabo (1937-92) was born on Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. In 1982, he and four other Torres Strait Islanders began legal proceedings to establish their traditional ownership of their land. As he was the first named plaintiff in the action, it became known as the Mabo Case.

The Mabo litigation lasted ten years, from 1982 to 1992. In June 1992, six months after the death of Eddie Mabo, a landmark High Court ruling was declared. This gave legal recognition to the fact that indigenous land ownership existed before European settlement and that in some cases, this land tenure was not subsequently extinguished by the Crown. The ruling refuted the legal concept of terra nullius.

The five Murray Islander plaintiffs were: Eddie Koiki Mabo, Celuia Mapo Salee, James Rice, Sam Passi and his brother Father David Passi The lawyers who acted for the plaintiffs were Bryan Keon-Cohen, Ron Castan, Greg McIntyre and Barbara Hocking.

Bryan Keon-Cohen, QC is currently the Principal Legal Officer of the Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation, Melbourne. He became a barrister of the Victorian Bar in 1992. In January 1992 he was invited by Ron Castan, QC, to assist him in what was to become known as the Mabo Case. Keon-Cohen began by drafting a Statement of Claim in the High Court of Australia.

Greg McIntyre, whose papers are incorporated into this collection, was initially a solicitor with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in Cairns. Following this, he was the instructing solicitor in the Koowarta Case. He became the instructing solicitor and occasional counsel in the Mabo cases throughout 1982-92.


The encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994.

Keon-Cohen, Bryan. The Mabo litigation: a personal and procedural account, Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, December 2000, pp. 892-951. Photocopy held in MS 9518, Box 19, Envelope 25.

Mabo: life of an island man. Melbourne, Cinemedia (videorecording, Film Australia), 1997.

Sharp, Nonie. No ordinary judgment. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996.


Home > Historical note