ALS slam police over NSW jail death secrecy

The NSW Aboriginal Legal Service has pointed to a “procedural failure” by police surrounding the death of Rebecca Maher, the first Aboriginal person to die in custody in that state in 16 years.

Ms Maher passed away in the holding cells of the Maitland Police station on July 19, but the full story of what happened to her will not be known until a Coronial inquiry next year.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Coroner said no date had yet been set for the hearing, but deaths in custody were typically heard quicker than other cases. An inquiry into Ms Maher’s death was likely early next year.

The ALS said it was concerned it was not notified that Ms Maher had been taken into custody — and was not told of her death until the following month, on August 12.

ALS NSW chief executive officer Gary Oliver said the ALS was usually notified when Aboriginal people were taken into custody through a Custody Notification Service, a round-the-clock legal advice and welfare phone line used by the NSW Police.

“There wasn’t any notification that Ms Maher was being held by police,” Mr Oliver said.

“Usually NSW police notify us through our CNS, and an ALS lawyer gives the person legal advice and checks they’re OK.

“Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medication, or whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.

“Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody, and NSW police ensure that person in custody is made safe.

“It’s a good system with police and the ALS working together to make sure Aboriginal people in custody are provided with early legal advice, and are safe.

“We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment.

“We’re also very concerned that the ALS was not notified of Ms Maher’s death by NSW Police.”

Mr Oliver said the Aboriginal community needed to know their loved ones were safe when they were taken into police custody.

He said there hadn’t been a death in police cell custody since 2000, when the
CNS began.

“If the CNS had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome,” he said.

“We will work closely with NSW police to ensure all checks and balances are occurring in every other police station across NSW and ACT.

“There is no good reason why my community has to experience the extreme trauma of another Aboriginal death in custody.”

A NSW police spokesman said: “A critical incident investigation is underway with all information to be provided to the Coroner. It would be inappropriate to comment further.”

The CNS emerged from a recommendation in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which advised the development of a protocol whereby the ALS is notified when an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained, before an interview is conducted.

Wendy Caccetta


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