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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

Custody phone service saves lives

The Custody Notification Service (CNS) will be unfunded as of June 30, 2015. Please help #savetheCNS. There have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody in NSW and ACT since the CNS began. The CNS is a 24-hour legal advice and RU OK phone line for Aboriginal people taken into police custody.

Under NSW law, Police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) whenever they have taken an Aboriginal person into custody.

The Police phone our CNS, and the Aboriginal person receives early legal advice from an ALS lawyer, ensuring their fundamental legal rights are respected and less Aboriginal people are imprisoned.

The ALS lawyer also asks the Aboriginal person: RU OK? Often, the answer is no. Threats of self-harm or suicide are common. Concerns about access to medication are common. Notifications of injuries sustained that need to be examined by a health professional are common.

Our CNS lawyers are trained to carefully respond to these concerns, including notifying custody Police who partake in appropriate duty of care.

Our CNS lawyers can also contact the person’s family and an Aboriginal Field Officer, ensuring parental or family concern for that person’s whereabouts and health are minimised.

Simply, the CNS is not just a phoneline, it’s a lifeline.

At nearly the same cost per year of detaining two juveniles, the CNS assists over 15,000 Aboriginal people every year.

It was set up in 2000 in response to NSW legislation implementing recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, that Police should notify the ALS whenever they take an Aboriginal person into custody.

Significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody since the CNS began.

Aboriginal men, women and children in custody trust the ALS and share their medical or other concerns with the CNS lawyer, knowing the lawyer will advocate for their legal, health and family welfare.

Today, the CNS operates in NSW and ACT taking on average 300 calls per week.

The CNS:

  • decreases preventable injuries or deaths in police cell custody
  • increases legal and health protections for a person in police cell custody
  • increases Aboriginal family and community safety
  • reduces Aboriginal incarceration rates
  • affords legislated State protection of fair and equitable access to justice to vulnerable Aboriginal people

Quick facts

Helping Aboriginal people

  • Assists over 15,000 Aboriginal men, women and children every year
  • Reduces Aboriginal incarceration rates
  • Reduces self harm and preventable deaths in police cell custody
  • Increases legal and health protections for Aboriginal people in custody
  • Engages police, lawyers, Aboriginal field officers, and the family in a vulnerable person’s welfare in custody
  • Increases family and community safety
  • Early legal advice protects Aboriginal people from the sometimes heavy-handed use of police powers


  • Is staffed by experienced criminal lawyers conscious of an Aboriginal person’s cultural needs, communication issues and education.


  • The 24-hour phone line costs nearly the same to operate as holding two juveniles in detention for one year.
  • Operational costs of $526,000 per year includes the phone line, a rotating roster of seven lawyers working day and night, and one administration officer.
  • From 2007, the CNS was funded through one off annual grants by the Australian government.
  • In May 2012, the Australian government discontinued funding for the CNS.
  • For one year ALS staff carried the cost of the phone line as an alternative funding source could not be found.
  • In June 2013 the Australian government funded the phone line again through a one-off grant.
  • In December 2014 the Australian government through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding round rejected our application for future CNS funding.
  • Current government funding for the CNS ceases on June 30, 2015


If the phone line is not available, the legislative need for notification and right to advice for Aboriginal People in custody will not be met.

Increased costs will flow to the State through:

  • A potential increase in the number of Aboriginal injuries and deaths in police cell custody
  • Increased remand prisoner numbers
  • Increased defended hearings
  • Overloading the Children’s Legal Service (CLS) Phone System (provided by Legal Aid NSW) – the level of Aboriginal Juvenile crime is regrettably high and with no CNS, the Children’s Legal Service will have to respond to calls about Aboriginal Young People which they’re not currently doing
  • Additional Children’s Court charges
  • Longer Local Court lists because of procedural adjournments – greater costs in relieving and additional Magistrates
  • And for Aboriginal people, already so over-represented in the Criminal Justice System, it will mean:
  • An increase in incarceration rates
  • An increase in preventable self harm or deaths in police cell custody
  • An increase in young offenders before the courts
  • A decrease in family and community safety.

Next article – Nurses, midwives blocked from Medicare plans

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