MEDIA RELEASE 11 March 2021

Another Aboriginal Death in Custody Highlights the Cost of Waiting

VALS is deeply saddened by the news that an Aboriginal man died in Ravenhall Correctional Centre on 7 March 2021. Another Aboriginal family is left to deal with the consequences of a system that imprisons us at staggering rates. Devastatingly, this is the third Aboriginal death in custody in Australia in one week.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The recommendations of the Commission have never been fully implemented. There have been more than 455 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Commission’s report was tabled.

This tragedy will be the first to be dealt with under the Coroners Court Practice Direction 6 – Indigenous Deaths in Custody. The new protocols are designed to empower Aboriginal voices during the process and ensure investigations happen in a timely matter. This requires the initial hearing to happen within 28 days of the person’s death.

VALS raised our concerns when the new protocols were introduced that we were not being properly funded by Government to fulfill the role we have been given. We again ask the Victorian Government to properly fund our services so that we can make a real difference for our people.

VALS has developed a COVID-19 recovery plan, Building Back Better, to advise the Victorian and Federal Governments on how to ensure that, following the pandemic crisis, the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are improved. The plan includes evidence-based, achievable policies for systemic change. We are disappointed at the lack of engagement of both Governments on our proposals and recommendations

Building Back Better, has a raft of recommendations in relation to places of detention. We know that the pandemic has had a severe impact for people in places of detention. That is why we have asked the Victorian Government to include us in the process to implement the National Preventative Mechanism under Australia’s OPCAT obligations. Independent, culturally-appropriate detention oversight is a critical step to ending deaths in custody.

The Victorian Government must immediately reconsider their law and order agenda which has disproportionality affected Aboriginal communities, particularly Aboriginal women, and fully implement the outstanding recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, repeal their draconian bail laws, and properly fund Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations.

The announcement of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission this week was a hopeful moment for many people. The news of this tragic death is a reminder that there is immediate work to be done. VALS is ready and willing to work with and support the Victorian Government to implement the systemic change that is needed.

Quotes Attributable to Nerita Waight, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

“My thoughts are with the family and community of the Aboriginal man who died in Ravenhall Correctional Centre on the weekend. This is a trauma that will have a lasting impact.”

“This death highlights the urgent need for sweeping reforms to the justice system. Our people are grossly overrepresented in the criminal legal system and in prisons. We have the solutions ready for Government. We just need them to listen and act.”

“We await the Victorian Attorney-General and the Justice Minister to answer our calls for change and empower us to lead the way.”

Media inquiries

Patrick Cook
Senior Communications and Media Officer
pcook@vals.org.au
0417 003 910

To determine eligibility VALS will:

  • enquire as to the Aboriginality of the client;
  • enquire as to perceived or actual conflict of interest;
  • enquire as to compliance with the Means Test;
  • consider the merit of the client’s matter.

Aboriginality
The first time someone uses VALS they must provide proof of their Aboriginality using the Confirmation of Aboriginality Form. This form must be signed and sealed by the Officer Bearers of a recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation.

Conflict
VALS must not decline to provide assistance to an eligible person, group or body on the grounds that the other party to the matter is an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person. In circumstances where the relationship between the parties to a case would result in a conflict of interest, that conflict must be managed in accordance with the Victorian Legal Practice requirements and Policy Direction 9 – “Managing Conflicts of Interest” – of the Attorney-General’s Department Policy Directions for the Delivery of Legal Aid Services to Indigenous Australians (2008).

VALS will not act if a conflict of interest exists. A conflict of interest may be an ‘actual’ conflict of interest or a ‘perceived’ conflict of interest. A conflict of interest can involve:

  • Clients who have different interests, such as VALS may have advised or acted for person “A” (old client) who has an interest that conflicts with person “B” (intended new client).
  • Clients and VALS, such as a VALS staff member or Board Member has an interest that conflicts with an intended new client. Conflicts involving client-provider relationships are:
    •  An owner, director, manager, employee, contractor or agent of VALS and/or;
    • An employee of the Department; and/or
    • A close relative (spouse, de facto, parent, sibling or child) of any of the above.

VALS provides assistance on a first in best dressed basis (i.e. provide direct assistance to the party who approaches VALS first). VALS will refer the other party to another legal service provider or “brief out” the client to a private lawyer (subject to the client meeting the requirements for brief outs). Where appropriate, VALS may act for one client and provide assistance by brief out to the other.

Means Test
Where a person seeks casework assistance, VALS must ensure that applicants satisfy the Means Testing provisions of the Policy Directions.

VALS must ensure that all applicants for legal casework assistance satisfy one or more of the following requirements:

  • Under 18 years of age;
  • Main source of income comes from Community Development Employment Projects; (CDEP) participant wages or Centrelink (or equivalent) benefits; or
  • Gross household income is under $52,000 per annum.

Note: Household income includes the income of your partner, spouse, relative including an adult child who you live with.

The Means Test will be administered in two parts:

Part A: Requires the completion of a small number of questions relating to the applicant’s personal circumstances and income level.

Part B: Is required where applicants do not satisfy the criteria in Part A. It requires more detail about the applicant’s income, assets, employment status and number of dependents.

Merit Test
Discretion will be used to determine if a particular case has merit.