• The future of NSW's Custody Notification Service is in doubt over lack of funding commitments from June 2016 onwards. Picture: Screen grab from ALS CNS video. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The Custody Notification Service - a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into the Aboriginal deaths in custody - may be under threat in NSW if funding arrangements aren't addressed.
Laura Murphy-Oates

The Point
9 Mar 2016 - 10:15 AM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2016 - 1:13 PM

With the announcement late last year of $1.8 million dollars of federal government funding over the next four years, it looked like the funding woes for the custody notification service were over.

However, three months later and NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Gary Oliver says, the line is still only officially funded until June this year.

“You know I wish we were funded until 2019,  we’ve got a media release saying that, but our contract actually tells that we’re funded to the 30th of June, and there’s no further commitment past the 30th of June."

Watch The Point: How the Custody Notification Service is saving lives

The custody notification service is a 24-hour phone line set up to provide legal advice and support for Indigenous people who are arrested in NSW or the ACT.

The practice of notifying an Aboriginal Legal service when an Indigenous person is arrested was one of the recommendations arising out of the Royal Commission into the Aboriginal deaths in custody report in 1991.

While each state has some mechanisms in place for notifying legal services when an Indigenous person is arrested, NSW is currently the only state where it is mandated by law that the police must call the line.

It’s also the only 24-hour line staffed by qualified lawyers from Aboriginal organisation. They take around 300 calls a week.

The ALS CEO says this has made all the difference.

“It’s been running since the financial years of 2007 and 2008 - and since that time it’s pleased us that we have not had one Aboriginal death in custody,” says Mr Oliver.

The Australian government has funded CNS through one-off annual grants since 2008. 

For each funding cycle, the ALS has launched media campaigns to keep the line funded, with last minute commitments coming through each time.

The organisation has even resorted to crowd-funding.

In December 2014, they were rejected through the Indigenous Advancement strategy for future funding. It was only after a large-scale campaign, including street protests, a social media push using the hashtag #savetheCNS, and an online petition garnering 50,000 signatures, that the line secured a funding commitment to 2019.

Mr Oliver says it’s frustrating to be back in the same situation.

“We’re nearly at June 30, we’re a couple of months away, there’s probably a federal election in between there and we’re going to have to get out there and beat our drum again,” he says.

“I call on the federal government, you’ve made the commitment, $1.8 million dollars to that period, let’s have a contract.”

NITV contacted the Federal Minister for Indigenous affairs, Nigel Scullion, and he confirmed in a statement that the line will be funded as promised.

“My department will work with the legal service to finalise funding arrangements beyond 30 June 2016,” he says.

However, the minister says the responsibility to fund the line should not fall solely on the federal government.

“I remain disappointed with the NSW Attorney-General, Gabrielle Upton, for refusing to even share the cost of the CNS ... and remain open to looking at options to redirect existing funding allocated to the NSW Government towards the service,” he says.

But the NSW Attorney General says it’s not their responsibility.

“The CNS is a vital service that has been historically funded by the Commonwealth,” says Ms Upton.

“NSW will continue to hold the Commonwealth to its responsibility to ensure the most vulnerable have access to fast, fair and efficient justice.”