An Australian legal body has called on the NSW government to act following the first Indigenous death in NSW police cell custody in 16 years.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) has urged the NSW government to look into the death of Rebecca Maher – a 36-year-old Wiradjuri woman who was kept in a holding cell last month.
According to ALHR, Ms Maher was detained for alleged intoxication and placed in a holding cell at Maitland Police Station, before being found deceased in the same cell between five and six hours later.
“ALHR is deeply troubled to learn of the first Indigenous death in custody in NSW since the introduction of the very effective Custody Notification Service (CNS) in 2000,” said Kerry Weste, ALHR vice-president.
“ALHR strongly supports calls from the Aboriginal Legal Service for an urgent review of the legislation relating to the detention of intoxicated persons.
“We call on the NSW government to extend procedures that require police to notify the CNS when an Aboriginal person is arrested so that they apply equally for persons held for intoxication.”
Ms Weste said ALHR is very concerned that there may have been failures on the part of the NSW police to enact certain pathways to ensure the welfare of Ms Maher.
“It is unclear whether, during the five to six hours that she was held, police have complied with their legal obligation to continually seek to place Ms Maher into the care of a responsible person, provide her with adequate care appropriate to her needs and not place her in a cell unless it was necessary, or impracticable to hold her elsewhere,” she said.
“Indigenous Australians are among the most highly incarcerated peoples in the world, being 15 times more likely than other Australians to be imprisoned.
“The vulnerability of Aboriginal Australians to death whilst in police custody has been well documented. Twenty-five years ago, the CNS was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody for precisely this reason.”