News : Future of NSW Indigenous Helpline Uncertain
NSW, Australia, June 30, 2015 -- The future of a 24-hour legal helpline for Indigenous detainees in New South Wales remains uncertain, with dedicated federal funding set to expire on Tuesday.
Since 2008, the Custody Notification Service, which is run by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, has been funded through one-off grants by the federal government.
A spokeswoman for attorney general George Brandis argued "the government is not ‘de-funding’ the custody notification service, nor has funding ever been guaranteed for this service."
Rather, she said, the helpline should be paid for from the $17m in funds allocated to the ALS NSW/ACT by the government for 2015-16.
"While the commonwealth government provides the funding, the people who are closest to those who require legal assistance – the service providers – are best placed to decide where that funding should be allocated," she said.
According to the ALS NSW/ACT, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in custody in NSW since the service began in 2000, and it remains a critical service.
Acting chief legal officer Jeremy Styles said the service would be happy to cover the cost inhouse if it was accompanied by a corresponding budget increase, but that as it stands other frontline services would have to be cut.
When asked if the $17m represented an increase in funding from the previous year, Styles said the $470,000 increase in the budget was "very moderate" and in line with funding allocations across the country to meet the needs of an increased Aboriginal population.
It would not be enough to cover the $526,000 annual operating cost of the helpline.
Styles said they were not a "fat organisation" and that the budget change would lead to job losses and the reduction of other important work such as family and comprehensive criminal law services.
The CNS provides legal advice and welfare to Aboriginal people in custody. It receives on average 300 calls a week in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory.
Styles said clients sometimes called the helpline with suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues they felt unable to raise with police.
The service was established following a recommendation of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, which investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal people in police and prison custody during the 1980s.
A petition that has attracted over 48,000 signatures describes it as: "not just a phone line, it’s a lifeline".
In 2013, just two weeks before the service was due to cease operating and following extensive campaigning by the Aboriginal Legal Service, then federal attorney general Mark Dreyfus agreed to funding for another two-year period.
Fighting for funding every two years has been a "gruelling process", said Styles, limiting the service’s capacity to lay down long-term strategies and development plans.
Styles said that in the interim the ALS NSW/ACT will maintain the service at their own cost for a number of weeks as they continue campaigning for federal or state government funding.
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NSW regulations mean the Aboriginal Legal Service must be notified when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into police custody, and ensures their right to communicate with a lawyer.
The attorney general’s spokeswoman noted that the NSW government "contributes no funding for the implementation of their own regulation" and that "state matters comprise the majority of cases undertaken by the ALS".
A spokesperson for the NSW attorney general, Gabrielle Upton, and the NSW Aboriginal affairs minister, Leslie Williams, declined to comment.
A similar helpline will be set up in Western Australia as part of a state government response to Aboriginal deaths in custody, it was announced on Wednesday.
The issue attracted national attention when a 22-year-old Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu, died in Port Hedland police lockup after spending three days in custody to "pay down" overdue fines.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Custody Notification Service:
The Custody Notification Service (CNS) is a 24-hour legal advice and RU OK phone line for Aboriginal people taken into police custody.
About Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT:
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT have 23 offices and 187 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff across NSW and ACT who provide legal services to Aboriginal people and the community.
Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2015
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