WA Government introduces vital reforms

October 2, 2019

Western Australian Government applauded for Bill to cancel warrants for unpaid fines and long awaited roll out of Custody Notification Service.

Last Thursday the West Australian Government tabled a bill in Parliament to cancel all unserved warrants for unpaid fines and on Wednesday, after many years of lobbying, a life-saving Custody Notification Service (CNS) went live. 

In WA, hundreds of people are imprisoned each year for unpaid fines. In 2014, when Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, died in custody while serving a sentence for defaulting on her fines, this archaic practice and the lack of a CNS in Western Australia were cast into the national spotlight.

Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) President Kerry Weste said, “ALHR welcomes these long-awaited moves as important steps in ensuring WA complies with its international human rights law obligations and implements long outstanding recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.” 

“After the coronial inquiry into Ms Dhu’s shocking death, ALHR supported Coroner Ros Fogliani’s recommendations the West Australian Government  prioritise reforms to end the practice of “imprisoning people for unpaid fines and urgently implement a mandatory CNS.”

The mandatory CNS requires police officers to notify solicitors at the Aboriginal Legal Service each time an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into custody in WA. Notified solicitors will then have the opportunity to conduct welfare assessments and provide immediate legal advice. Ms Weste said, “A legislated CNS has operated in NSW since 2000, and significantly there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody since it began.”

“This is part of a larger national issue. It has been 28 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended governments consider introducing an ongoing amnesty on the execution of outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and and that Police should notify Aboriginal Legal Services whenever they take an Aboriginal person into custody.” 

“If passed, these reforms will save lives. ALHR commends the WA Government and calls on the Parliament to unanimously support the bill.”

“ALHR also takes this opportunity to congratulate Sisters Inside for continuously campaigning on this issue since 2014, during which time it has paid off approximately $419,510 in fines for 137 women and released 20 women from prison,” said Ms Weste.

In August 2019 it was reported that 424 Indigenous people had died in police custody or prison since the 1991 Royal Commission. Aboriginal women are a particularly vulnerable group at risk of being locked up for defaulting payment of a fine, and comprise 22 per cent of all fine default prisoners. Ms Weste said, “ALHR is concerned by media reports that Indigenous women are still less likely to receive all appropriate medical care prior to their death and authorities are less likely to have followed all of their own procedures where an Indigenous woman died in custody.”

“According to a 2018 Deloitte report commissioned for the Federal Government, 36 per cent of the recommendations dating back to the 1991 Royal Commission have either not been implemented, or been partly implemented. Although all jurisdictions have some form of CNS in place, currently  only NSW and ACT have legislation  explicitly requiring notification when an Aboriginal person comes into custody. ALHR remains concerned that in jurisdictions such as the Northern Territory protocols only require police to make reasonable efforts to notify Aboriginal Legal Aid when an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person is brought into custody. 

“ALHR calls on the Federal Government and all states and territories to take urgent actions to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison, and deaths in custody, including by implementing all recommendations in the 1991 Royal Commission report.” 

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365.