Lawyers say that if the service had been used, NSW may have avoided its first Aboriginal death in a police cell since 2000. Max Chalmers reports.
A successful system designed to prevent Aboriginal deaths in custody was not used when a Wiradjuri woman died at Maitland police station earlier this year.
Rebecca Maher died on July 19 after NSW Police failed to notify the Custody Notification Service (CNS) that she had been taken into custody, the Aboriginal Legal Service said today.
Under NSW law, police are mandated to contact the CNS when an Aboriginal person is taken into custody. The system is run by the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), who first make inquires about the person’s welfare, health, and wellbeing. If the person is well, they can subsequently receive legal advice.
But in a statement issued today the ALS NSW/ACT said it was not notified when Maher was taken into custody or when she died until weeks later.
Maher’s death marks the first Aboriginal death in a police cell in NSW since 2000, and the first time someone has died since the CNS was introduced, itself a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. At the time of her death an ABC report said Maher had appeared intoxicated when arrested and that she was placed in a holding cell.
ALS solicitor Stella Boyages, who has been involved in the CNS for eight years, said police were usually “very diligent” about using the service, and that when a person was intoxicated they would still call to notify the ALS.
“Occasionally I do get a phone call and [the police]say ‘this person has been in custody for five hours and now that they’re sober, we’re ringing you’. And I say ‘that’s not good enough’,” she said.
But Boyages said that in other instances police would call immediately, even when a person was being taken to hospital.
Gary Oliver, the CEO of the NSW/ACT ALS, said in a statement that his organisation wasn’t notified of Maher’s death until August 12, more than three weeks after it occurred.
“If the CNS had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome,” Oliver said.
NSW Police have refused to confirm or deny whether anyone attempted to make contact with the CNS.
“A critical incident investigation is under way with all information to be provided to the coroner,” they said in a brief statement. “It would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion contacted the ALS today to pass his condolences on to Maher’s family and will contact NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton about the death, the ALS said.
In December 2015, Scullion stepped in to provide Federal funding for the CNS after the NSW state Liberal government refused to fund it.
Costing just $500,000 per year, the service had previously been surviving off short grants from the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, and had at times raised its own funds.
The decision as to who should pick up the tab when that funding expired caused open bickering between state and federal Coalition members. It was eventually secured until mid-2019.
A Coronial inquiry into Maher’s death is expected to start in Newcastle in October.
This article has been updated to note Maher is the first Aboriginal person to die in a police cell since 2000. A number of other Aboriginal people have died in custody.