The New South Wales Government has extended its Custody Notification Service to ensure police call the hotline if they've taken an Indigenous person into protective custody for being intoxicated.
The Custody Notification Service (CNS) is an initiative run by the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited (ALS) to provide 24-hour legal advice for Indigenous people taken into police custody.
Karly Warner, Palawa woman and chief executive officer of the ALS, told NITV News on Monday she welcomes the new amendments.
"Today's announcement is going to ensure there is an increased protection for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being taken into protective custody for reasons of intoxication," she said.
Prior to this announcement, police were only obliged to call the CNS if an Indigenous person was taken into custody for an offence, not if they were detained as an intoxicated person under Part 16 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002.
The NSW Attorney General, Mark Speakman, said the change is "another safety measure to ensure we are looking after Indigenous people in custody".
“It's a step to stopping deaths in custody, I don't know that you can ever rule our that awful possibility completely but obviously zero is what we aim at in NSW,” he said.
These changes come in response to a coronial inquest into the death in custody of Wiradjuri woman Rebecca Maher.
Ms Maher, who was 36 at the time of her death, was detained in police custody after being found walking along the road in Cessnock while allegedly appearing drunk.
Less than six hours later, she was found dead in a holding cell at the Maitland Police Station in the early hours of July 19, 2016.
A key recommendation made during the inquest into her death earlier this year found any Aboriginal person detained as an intoxicated person should also be provided with the same access to the CNS as an Aboriginal person held in custody for an offence is.
Ms Warner said she hopes the expansion will help further protect Indigenous people being taken into custody.
“The critical thing for us, had the Aboriginal Legal Service been called when Ms Maher was taken into custody, we could have ensured that police were complying with their duty of care towards her,” she said.
“What we want to make sure through this expanded service is that such a tragedy like Ms Maher never happens to an Aboriginal person taken into custody.”
To support these changes, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt announced he will be investing $1 million into the service for 2019-20.
The CNS was originally set up in 2000 in response to recommendations made in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, that police should notify the ALS whenever an Indigenous person is taken into custody.