Three years since Ms Dhu’s tragic death in custody and unfair laws remain

MEDIA RELEASE: 03.08.2017

The Western Australian Government is dragging its heels on implementing vital recommendations made by the State Coroner following the devastating and preventable death in custody of Ms Dhu in August 2014, the Human Rights Law Centre and Change the Record said today.

Ms Dhu, a 22 year old Yamatji woman with her whole life ahead of her, died in police custody of a family violence injury after being locked up for unpaid fines and treated inhumanely and unprofessionally by police. Tomorrow marks the 3rd anniversary of her death. It is also nearly 9 months since the Coroner recommended that the WA Government scrap laws that see vulnerable people who cannot pay their fines locked up. Western Australia still imprisons Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women at nearly twice the national average.

Adrianne Walters, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said, “It’s been three years since the cruel death of Ms Dhu in police custody. Three years for the WA Government to right clear wrongs. Ms Dhu should never have been taken into custody in the first place. The Government has had long enough – it must stop locking up vulnerable people who cannot pay fines.”

The Coroner also recommended the WA Government investigate a Custody Notification Service (CNS), which would require police to contact the Aboriginal legal service when a person is taken into custody so that a welfare and legal check can be conducted. The WA Government has not yet implemented the Coroner’s recommendations.

“A notification service is an obvious, simple and lifesaving measure,” said Cheryl Axleby, Co-Chair of Change the Record. “We were told this 26 years ago by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We were told it only two weeks ago by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Minister Scullion has even offered each state and territory government funding for a CNS program. We cannot wait any longer,” said Ms Axleby.

Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment, a report by Change the Record and the Human Rights Law Centre, calls for governments around Australia to change laws that disproportionately and unfairly criminalise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, like imprisoning people who cannot pay fines. A key recommendation is to invest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led services that help women address challenges in their lives, like homelessness, family violence and mental illness, which can lead some women to offend.

Ms Axleby said, “The unfair laws and systems that contributed to Ms Dhu’s death are endemic nation-wide.”

“Over-zealous policing and excessive police powers see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fined and locked up for minor offending,” said Antoinette Braybrook, Co-Chair of Change the Record. “This causes immense harm and does little to prevent Aboriginal women coming into contact with the justice system.”

“Most women in custody are survivors of violence and many are mothers. The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is a crisis, carrying with it profound effects for their children and their communities. If we are to see women’s offending rates drop, governments must invest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that work with our women to stop violence” said Ms Braybrook.

Download a copy of the report here.

For more information or interviews:

Michelle Bennett, Human Rights Law Centre: 0419 100 519 (For Adrianne Walters)

Ben Schokman, Change the Record: 0403 622 810 (For Antoinette Braybrook and Cheryl Axleby)