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Issue #1681      April 22, 2015

NT lock-up laws to be challenged

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice NT Agency (NAAJA) has launched a challenge in the High Court to new laws that allow Northern Territory police to lock people up on suspicion of committing minor offences.

Paperless arrests introduced late last year allow police to hold someone for four hours if they suspect they have committed or are about to commit some offences before charging or releasing them, or issuing an infringement notice.

Ruth Barson, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), which is part of the legal team running the case, said that the case is about ensuring people cannot be detained in circumstances which breach well-established legal principles.

“These laws allow police to lock someone up for minor offences like swearing, which would usually only attract a small fine,” she said. “The laws allow police to effectively act as prosecutor and judge. The right to liberty is a fundamental human right and should only be restricted by the courts, save for well-established exceptions.”

Ms Barson said the powers were “unprecedented”.

“They lack transparency, they’re opaque,” she said.

“They don’t require the involvement of the courts, they don’t require police to give someone the opportunity to contact a lawyer, so it’s entirely possible these laws are being used routinely without anybody knowing.”

The government says paperless arrests cut down on red tape, keeping police on the street rather than filling out paperwork, and will prevent “troublemakers” escalating situations.

If a person is drunk when locked up, police can hold them until they believe they are no longer intoxicated.

The NT already has an imprisonment and detention crisis, with Aboriginal people making up more than 85 percent of the jail population.

Ms Barson said the government should be addressing Indigenous disadvantage through remote community employment programs and boosting school attendance rather than applying laws that compound the problem.

“These laws are likely to disproportionately impact Aboriginal people and that’s certainly a cause for concern,” she said.

The High Court will now consider the challenge and determine when the case will be heard – hopefully this year, Ms Barson said.

“It’s important the High Court be given an opportunity to assess the legality of such laws that allow police to act as both prosecutor and judge and to sideline and exclude the courts from these police powers,” she said.

Koori Mail

Next article – The lives of political asylum seekers in Australia are in danger

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