The service which helps preserve the lives of First Nations people who are arrested and detained by police in New South Wales could close, with the Federal Government offering no firm commitment of financial support for its continuation.
New chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS), Karly Warner, yesterday described the state's Custody Notification System as a "lifeline" for Aboriginal people, but said she is concerned that a lack of ongoing support for it at the Commonwealth level could see the proven initiative fold.
"Our current funding agreement with the Commonwealth government ends on 30 June," Ms Warner told NITV News.
"We have been advised that the Commonwealth will extend funding for one year only."
Ms Warner said the amount provided by the federal government to renew the service for the next 12-months does not cover the costs of running the service to its required potential.
"The funding on the table falls short of the actual funding needed to operate an effective 24-7 CNS now and into the future," said Ms Warner.
"We have the solution and governments know that it works.
"We need adequate long term funding to run this life-saving service and to offer continuity of employment to our ALS staff who ensure those calls are answered 24-7," she said.
The palawa woman, who took on the role a fortnight ago, told NITV News the service "isn’t a phone line, it’s a lifeline" for Aboriginal people taken into custody.
The CNS currently operates as a 24-hour legal advice service and RU OK phone line, and is a safeguard to prevent needless deaths in custody. It is a statutory requirement in NSW that police contact the ALS or an equivalent service whenever an Aboriginal person is taken into custody.
Since the service commenced in 2000, there have been no Indigenous deaths in custody after the CNS has been contacted in the first instance.
"This is a critical justice system reform that needs to happen," Ms Warner said.
In June 2015, the ALS campaigned to save the service after an application for federal government funding for it through the contentious Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) was rejected and other avenues for alternative financial support were ignored.
On 1 July 2015, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Nigel Scullion, committed over a quarter of a million dollars to the service but the NSW Government refused to foot the remainder of the required $500,000 budget, with the state's Attorney-General claiming the federal government was "sidestepping their responsibility" to fund the CNS.
The federal finance enabled the CNS to operate in NSW for a further six months, before Mr Scullion announced $1.8 million in funding for it in December of that year to ensure the service operated until 30 June 2019.
NSW has the highest population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of all the states and territories at 216,176 according to the 2016 census.
In a written response the newly appointed Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the Commonwealth is currently discussing the continuation of the CNS with the NSW Government. Mr Wyatt described the service as "important" and said the government wanted to ensure that it remained viable into the future.