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August 3, 2021

NSW death in custody ‘could have been averted’

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Rebecca Maher was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station on July 19. Photo: Supplied
Rebecca Maher was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station on July 19. Photo: Supplied

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) says the death of a 36-year-old Aboriginal woman in a police cell in NSW last month could have been averted if police had followed proper procedure.

Ms Maher from Raymond Terrace NSW passed away in the holding cells of Maitland Police Station on July 19.

ALS CEO Gary Oliver says the service was not notified of Ms Maher’s arrest and detainment through their Custody Notification Service (CNS), a 24/7 legal advice and RU OK phone line that NSW police use to notify the ALS when they take an Aboriginal person into custody.

‘There wasn’t any notification that Ms Maher was being held by police,’ says Mr Oliver.

‘Usually NSW Police notify us through our CNS, and an ALS lawyer gives the person legal advice and checks they’re OK.

‘Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medication, or whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.

‘Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody, and NSW police ensure that person in custody is made safe.

‘It’s a good system with police and the ALS working together to make sure Aboriginal people in custody are provided with early legal advice, and are safe.

‘We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment.

‘We’re also very concerned that the ALS was not notified of Ms Maher’s death by NSW police.

‘We only received police confirmation of Ms Maher’s death in police cell custody on August 12.

‘Every person in the Aboriginal community needs to know and trust their loved ones are safe when taken into police custody.

‘There hasn’t been a death in police cell custody since 2000, when the CNS began.

‘If the CNS had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome.

‘We will work closely with NSW police to ensure all checks and balances are occurring in every other police station across NSW and ACT.

‘There is no good reason why my community has to experience the extreme trauma of another Aboriginal death in custody.

‘Our families need to know our people are safe when they are taken into police cell custody.’

‘We hope the Coronial inquiry into Ms Maher’s death is thorough and clarifies the reason as to why Ms Maher was detained, the extent of safeguards put in place for Ms Maher while she was in the holding cell, and why she passed away,’ Mr Oliver said.

ALS has offered ongoing legal advice and support to Ms Maher’s family.


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