NSW government refuses funding for live-saving Aboriginal legal advice line

Greens MP Jamie Parker has slammed the NSW Liberal government for failing to fund a live-saving legal advice line for Aboriginal people who have been taken into police custody.

“The Federal government has cut funding and now the NSW government is refusing to accept responsibility, despite the fact that the requirement for the service is legislated under state law,” Mr Parker said.

“Vulnerable people are being put at risk because governments in this country cannot be shaken into action.

“The Custody Notification Service was created as a crucial reform following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to ensure that the rights and welfare of Aboriginal people in custody are maintained.

“Two decades after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, most of the 339 recommendations for reform still have not been implemented. This service is a rare example of a positive and effective reform that resulted from the Royal Commission and we must ensure it continues.

“The annual cost of this basic and invaluable service is equal to holding a two people in detention for one year.

“This Government found $300 million in tax breaks for the poker machine industry, $19 million to allow hunting in national parks, while also choosing to support big developers by way of tax gifts, incentives and exemptions, but it cannot find $500,000 for this service.

“We must recognise the injustices that our legal system has visited upon Aboriginal people over many generations, including the Stolen Generation, the unforgiveable and continuing gap in health, education and social outcomes of our Indigenous population, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration.

“I implore Premier O’Farrell and the Attorney General to recognise the need this service and to take responsibility for funding it,” Mr Parker said.

About the Custody Notification Service:

Under NSW law, the police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) every time an Aboriginal person is detained. The detained person is given the opportunity to talk to a qualified ALS lawyer and is advised of his or her rights in custody, as well as his or her legal situation. The lawyer can talk to police on behalf of the detained person, contact family and friends, and ascertain whether the detained person is okay.

Full speech transcript:

Mr JAMIE PARKER (Balmain) [12.42 p.m.]: Today I address an issue of great importance and urgency. It is an issue that strikes at the heart of our commitment as policymakers. On the 30 June 2013 a crucial, life-saving service will be discontinued because governments in this country cannot be shaken into action. I am speaking of the Custody Notification Service [CNS], which is a 24-hour legal advice and RU OK? phone line for Aboriginal people taken into police custody, operated by the Aboriginal Legal Service [ALS]. This vital service will end in a matter of weeks unless funding is found urgently. I note that the Attorney General is present for this statement.

In June 2012 the New South Wales Government informed the Aboriginal Legal Service that it will not fund the 24-hour phone line, even though an Aboriginal person’s access to legal advice through the Aboriginal Legal Service was written into New South Wales legislation. Under New South Wales law, the police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service every time an Aboriginal person is detained in a New South Wales police station. The Aboriginal person is given the opportunity to talk to a qualified Aboriginal Legal Service lawyer and is advised of his or her rights in custody, as well as his or her legal situation. The lawyer can talk to police on behalf of the detained person, contact family and friends, and ascertain whether the detained person is okay. The Custody Notification Service was created as a result of a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to ensure that the rights and welfare of Aboriginal people in custody are maintained.

The Custody Notification Service operates in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. It receives an average of 300 calls per week and provides more than 15,000 instances of legal advice and health and welfare checks to vulnerable Aboriginal men, women and children every year. Phil Naden, Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service, said that threats of self-harm or suicide are common. Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers are skilled at assessing and acting upon threats of self-harm and suicide and they notify the police, where appropriate, to ensure the safety of the person in custody. One Custody Notification Service lawyer has said that someone in detention threatens suicide at least once a week. With rates of Aboriginal incarceration already deplorably high, we simply cannot afford to let this service cease. Mr Naden noted:
Without the phone line, it is very likely Aboriginal over-representation will increase.

Two decades after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, most of the 339 recommendations for reform still have not been implemented. The Australian Institute of Criminology report noted that a recent major review of deaths in custody found that a spike in the number of Indigenous deaths in Australia is in line with almost a doubling of the number of Aboriginal people being locked up. Since the Custody Notification Service began operating in 2000, I am proud to say that there has not been a single death in custody.

This service is a rare example of the positive and effective reform that resulted from the royal commission. Starting from 1 July 2013, the Custody Notification Service needs an annual funding commitment of $500,000 for three to five years to continue its crucial lifeline service. The annual cost of this basic and invaluable service is equal to holding a few young people in detention for one year. This Government found $300 million in tax breaks for the poker machine industry, $19 million to allow hunting in national parks, and chooses to support big developers by way of tax gifts, incentives and exemptions, but it cannot find $500,000 for this service.

Mr Greg Smith: Are you going to condemn the Feds for abolishing it?

Mr JAMIE PARKER: I acknowledge the interjection from the Minister. I do condemn the Federal Government for abolishing it, but I understand its argument. As a result of the deaths in custody report, it is written into New South Wales legislation that the New South Wales Government is required to provide this service. My argument is that there is a disagreement over funding. I hope that the New South Wales Government can work with the Federal Government or, alternatively, will seek to fund it. Under the current system there is no funding for the Custody Notification Service. It is important to recognise the injustices in our legal system that have been visited upon Aboriginal people over many generations, including the Stolen Generation, the unforgiveable and continuing gap in health, education and social outcomes of our Indigenous population, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration. We need to resolve the issue and secure funding support.

I implore Premier O’Farrell and the Attorney General to recognise the requirement of this service as it was legislated under a New South Wales Act. I am concerned that the Federal Government has ceased funding, but on an objective analysis the State Government should make a significant contribution. We cannot allow this service to fail. I particularly recognise the 187 staff of the Aboriginal Legal Service who stepped up when the Government failed to do so and took a pay cut so that the service could continue. The inspirational decision of these dedicated administrative, field and legal staff is especially noteworthy given that Aboriginal Legal Service staff wages are already substantially lower than those offered by comparable legal organisations. I call on the Attorney General and the Premier O’Farrell to address this issue with urgency.

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About Jamie Parker (Greens MP for Balmain in NSW Parliament)

View all posts by Jamie Parker (Greens MP for Balmain in NSW Parliament)
Greens MP for Balmain in NSW - 1st Greens MP NSW Lower House Parliament. Leichhardt Councillor over 11yrs, Mayor for 3 terms

One Response to “NSW government refuses funding for live-saving Aboriginal legal advice line” Subscribe

  1. Stephen Lawrence May 29, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Great speech. Good on you Mr. Parker.

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