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Issue #1593      May 15, 2013

Funding stand-off hits legal service

Indigenous people who are arrested in New South Wales will no longer have access to the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) 24-hour custody notification service (CNS) from this July.

At present, Aboriginal people arrested in NSW have access to a solicitor at any time, day or night. But a funding stand-off between the federal and state governments means the ALS will be forced to cut the CNS at the end of the financial year, which chief legal officer John McKenzie said would mean already vulnerable people don’t get valuable assistance.

“They’re going to feel hopeless, going to panic, and two things happen when people panic,” he said. “Firstly they’re likely to say anything that will get them released then and there on bail and sometimes that means making a false confession. The other really serious aspect is that sometimes people self-harm.

“The real value of what we do is much bigger than just a legal service; we keep them safe and sound.”

Since its inception in 2007, the CNS has been funded by one-off grants from the federal government. It costs about $500,000 a year. Last year the federal government refused to fund the service, saying it was a state issue. A spokesperson for federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said in a statement that “the reality is that the failure of the NSW government to commit the funds required to maintain this important legal service on an ongoing basis means that it has been forced to run on annual one-off grants of uncommitted Commonwealth funds”.

“This isn’t a case of the Commonwealth cutting funds to a service; it’s a case of the NSW government continually refusing to fund a service required by its own statutory obligations,” the spokesperson said.

However, a spokesperson for NSW Attorney-General Greg Smith said the Attorney does not allocate funding for services. “Funding is allocated by Legal Aid after a formal process, and ALS may apply to Legal Aid for such funding,” the statement said.

“However, given this service has been until recently funded by the federal government, we question why the Commonwealth cut the funding and urge them to reinstitute funding for this service.”

Mr McKenzie said the buck-passing wasn’t going to help people who were arrested.

“Our solicitors are trained in great depth about dealing with Aboriginal people in stressful situations, so not only do we assist the person under arrest in the police station, giving them a friendly ear and legal advice, we inquire about their medical welfare,” he said.

“Aboriginal people under arrest in a police station often don’t trust the police and won’t tell an officer that they are, say, a serious diabetic and need medication, but quite often they will tell a lawyer, who will then ensure that they get insulin, or whatever it is they need, quick-smart – there’s not a week that goes by where we don’t have an instance like that.”

Last year, ALS staff agreed that to keep the CNS running, no staff member would get a pay increase or go up a pay grade. Mr McKenzie said it wasn’t fair to keep freezing pay and would lead to loss of the ALS’s greatest asset, its staff.

Police in NSW are required by law to contact the ALS when an Aboriginal person is taken into custody, a recommendation made from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. However, a fax sent to an empty office over the weekend meets the legislative requirement.

“Since the CNS has been running there have not been any Aboriginal deaths in police cells,” Mr McKenzie said.

“Aboriginal prisoners are still dying in jails because they are in there in such numbers, but to our knowledge, there haven’t been any Aboriginal deaths in police cells.

“There’s no magic wand, but we have a red-hot go of getting people out on bail and we’ve got a much better chance negotiating with police than a distressed Aboriginal person does.”

No NSW government has given funds to the ALS since its inception in 1973.

“There are examples in other states, that do give good funding, particularly Queensland,” Mr McKenzie said. “What we’re seeing here is a result of federalism, where the states and Commonwealth are always trying to get the other to pay. We don’t care which, we just need the funds.

“Our staff go over and above what we’re funded to do, but we believe the situation to be so serious, given the huge proportion of Aboriginal people who are put through the criminal justice system, we think the 24-hour service is an absolute necessity.”

Koori Mail  

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