A program credited with preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody is under threat, with the Abbott government urged to rethink its decision. Amy McQuire reports. The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT is campaigning to save a vital service after it lost funding under the Coalition’s controversial Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS). New South Wales is the only state to have implemented a Custody Notification Service (CNS), a recommendation of the 1991 Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.
Under New South Wales law, police must contact the ALS whenever they detain an Aboriginal person. Police phone the CNS and the person is then given the opportunity to talk to an ALS lawyer, who delivers early legal advice and asks about their welfare.
The ALS says there hasn’t been an Aboriginal death in custody in NSW or the ACT since the CNS began operating in 2000.
It estimates about 15,000 Aboriginal people each year use the CNS.
The absence of a CNS is keenly felt in other states like Western Australia. The families of Yamitji woman Juliekha Dhu, who died in horrendous pain in a Port Hedland watchhouse earlier this year, have been vocal in their campaign for a custody notification service in the state, to stop further Aboriginal deaths in custody.
But despite it being a requirement under state law, the New South Wales government has historically refused to fund the service, leaving it up to the Commonwealth.
It only costs about $500,000 to run per annum, but in 2012 the federal government sort to offload it to the state. Previously, it had only been surviving on one-off grants.
As the ALS NSW/ACT struggled to save the service it absorbed the cost, freezing staff wages and instead re-diverting it to the CNS. It set up a social media campaign and petition calling on the federal government to renew funding or it would face closing the service for good.
In 2013, the federal government reversed its decision following public outrage and awareness, and awarded a one-off grant from the Attorney-General’s Department to keep the service running.
But two years later, the CNS is again threatened.
The ALS NSW/ACT applied for funding under the Abbott government’s IAS, which collapsed 500 separate programs into five broad funding streams. The IAS has been criticised for being convoluted and complicated, and for prioritising non-Indigenous organisations over smaller, Aboriginal-controlled ones.
That funding was rejected and now the ALS NSW/ACT faces the real possibility that the essential service will be scrapped by June 30 this year.
It is calling on public support to push for a two to five year funding commitment to keep the CNS alive.
In a Change.org.au petition, the service says “The CNS is an extremely successful program assisting vulnerable people with fair and equitable access to justice and welfare”.
“It’s not just a phone line, it’s a lifeline.
“… The phone line costs nearly the same to operate as holding two juveniles in detention for one year – $526,000 per annum.
“The ALS is urgently calling on the Australian government to fund this essential service. Incarceration rates are too high, and there have already been too many Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody in this country.”
If you want to support the ALS and sign the petition, click here.