The Custody Notification Service (CNS) will not be cut as some media reports and a concerned Aboriginal Legal Services have suggested. In reading media reports this morning that the CNS would be done away with as part of suggested Government funding cuts, I was concerned. I phoned the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion.

“Gerry, the reports are wrong. The CNS will not be defunded. It will continue,” said Senator Scullion.

“They have got all their facts wrong. The ALS should not be concerned that it’s under any threat.”

“It is federally funded, by the Attorney-General’s Office. Once it’s up for renewal end of June, you’ll find we will continue to fund it.”

“We picked up the tab for the CNS from the NSW Government which let it go. I know the value of the CNS. You know that I am pushing to get it implemented in Western Australia. I’m flying to WA next Monday to discuss this with the Ministers over there. I will also be meeting with them to discuss how to prevent fine defaulters from being jailed.”

“You’ve lobbied me on these for a while and I see the merits and I am working to rollout the CNS, and to present alternatives to jailing fine defaulters,” said Senator Scullion.

The Federal Government has been hit with a barrage of criticism for funding cuts to Aboriginal organisations. The peak Aboriginal legal body, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, stated that it will have to shut down after it failed in its funding application to the Government through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) grants scheme.

$700 million in funding has been awarded to 964 organisations through the IAS. But many organisations are saying in real terms there have been funding cuts and certain programs and services defunded. Senator Scullion is saying that the latest Close the Gap report thrashed home the message that the approaches so far have failed and there “is the need for a new approach.”

“For the first time in decades we have had a holistic look at the myriad of services and projects being funded to ensure future funding is geared towards achieving change on the ground that improves the lives of individuals and communities.”

NATSILS said it will shut down after its unsuccessful IAS application. Not long ago, the Aboriginal Legal Services celebrated 40 years of service to their people. You would think that they needed more funding to represent their people before the Courts, who are being arrested and jailed at among the world’s highest rates. If anything, the Aboriginal legal services need funding like never before – but they should also be funded to expand into psychosocial support for offenders and their families. We have to break the cycles. Despite 40 years of the Aboriginal legal services, more First Peoples are being jailed at higher rates than ever before. This means more needs to be done, not less.

NATSILS boss, Shane Duffy said their annual funding was only $300,000; that is not a big deal in anyone’s language.

The NSW/ACT ALS applied for funding for the CNS through the IAS but failed. They did this because they were not sure whether the Attorney-General’s Office would renew federal funding in the vicinity of $500,000 per annum come end of June. However this morning, Senator Scullion assured me their funding would be renewed. Western Australia’s ALS also lodged an application for a prospective CNS. Senator Scullion said he is continuing to push the CNS with the Western Australian Government.

“It works. It has worked in NSW, it has led to zero deaths (in police watch houses over 15 years), so that speaks for itself,” said Senator Scullion.

That should be a small relief to the NSW/ACT ALS but only a small one. The Chief Legal Officer of the NSW/ACT ALS, Jeremy Styles told journalist Helen Davidson of The Guardian News that the unsuccessful IAS grants “are in the context of much, much deeper cuts that are crystallising on 1 July.”

“Generally, we’ve got a gross amount of $3m in cuts which come in on 1 July out of a budget of a bit over $18m,” said Mr Styles.

Back to the CNS, I first called for it to be rolled out nationally after the needlessly notorious death of 22 year old Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, on August 4, at the South Hedland police watch house. Weeks later, I met with Senator Scullion in Canberra and lobbied for the rollout of the CNS. He agreed to look into the CNS and soon enough became a supporter of the CNS. But we cannot delay its implementation, and I have lobbied vigorously in the months since for it to be hurried up. Senator Scullion will meet with his Western Australian counterparts next week to urge them to implement the CNS.

In my view, the CNS would have saved the life of Ms Dhu. A stout CNS trained advocate may have ensured Ms Dhu was not detained on unpaid parking fines. Ms Dhu died in the most horrific circumstances, pleading for medical assistance, begging for her life, choking on her vomit. A CNS advocate would have been her best chance. In 15 years of the CNS in operation in NSW there has not been a single fatality of a First Nations person detained in a police watch house.

“One life lost in custody, is one too many. We implore Senator Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs to provide this vital service nationally,” said Mr Eggington.

In reference to Ms Dhu’s passing, Mr Eggington said, “One must question whether a CNS could have avoided this tragic death.”

The CNS was a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The CNS would enable the ALSWA, as it does ALSNSW/ACT, to provide a 24/7 phone service for First Peoples detained in police custody. The service has lawyers rostered and stringent procedures in place that lines of communication are kept open.

The family of Ms Dhu has stated that they were not allowed to speak to Ms Dhu when they called the South Hedland police station.

In NSW, it only costs $500,000 annually to operate the CNS. The CNS makes on average 15,000 contacts with detainees per year. To rollout the CNS nationally would cost less than $4 million per year.

The NSW/ACT ALS states, “The Custody Notification Service is a telephone advice and well-check service operated by the ALS. By law the police must contact the ALS every time they detain an Aboriginal person in a NSW police station.”

Their CEO, Phil Naden said that the CNS “is more than a phone line.”

“It is a lifeline.”

“Significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police custody (watch houses) since the phone line began.”

“Every time our lawyers speak to an Aboriginal person being detained, they check upon the welfare of the person by asking ‘Are you okay’?”

“Often, people are not okay. Threats of self-harm or suicide are common.”

Ms Dhu should never have been locked up for unpaid parking fines. Instead of supporting the young woman through crisis care or in ensuring her hospitalisation, instead of listening to Ms Dhu’s pleadings of her being extremely unwell she finished up in a death sentence. She lasted only 48 hours.

The Western Australian Government should accept its share of responsibility in the detainment of this young woman, on some poverty-related unpaid fines crap. Senator Scullion needs to pull this off, and win over the Western Australian Government to do away with jailing fine defaulters and to implement the lifesaving CNS. One quarter of the Western Australian prison population comprise fine defaulters. That’s just idiocy.

Enough of filling jails with the poor, enough of criminalising the poor.

Western Australia is the mother of all jailers of First Peoples. This type of racism can end, and end soon. Last week, the mother and grandmother of the late Ms Dhu, applauded Senator Scullion’s call for the CNS in WA and for his proposal to introduce alternatives to jailing fine defaulters.

Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe said, “I thank Mr Scullion, I applaud what he is doing but please Mr Scullion hurry it all up in the name of my daughter, so other families do not have to go through what we are going through.”


–          The author of this article, Gerry Georgatos, declares an impartiality conflict of interest. He is a long-time custodial systems and deaths in custody researcher.


More reading:

Family of Ms Dhu applaud Scullion in urging Western Australia to implement Custody Notification Service | The Stringer

Western Australia urged to stop jailing fine defaulters | The Stringer

Family of Ms Dhu still waiting for answers | The Stringer

Custody Notification Service in WA will save lives says ALSWA CEO, Dennis Eggington | The Stringer

Family calls for justice for Ms Dhu – rallies across Australia

Scullion may lead way with rolling out the Custody Notification Service nationally

In the name of Julieka Dhu, the Custody Notification Service should rolled out nationally

Unpaid fines destroy lives with jail time

22-year-old police death in custody should not have occurred

Death in police custody – Custody Notification Service should be implemented nationwide

Custody Notification Service in WA will save lives says ALSWA CEO, Dennis Eggington | The Stringer