With the treatment of Indigenous prisoners, particularly youth offenders, in the news — with the horrific footage of detainee abuse in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre being shown on Four Corners — deaths in custody and treatment of Indigenous prisoners are back in the forefront for law reform advocates. August marks the two-year anniversary of the death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman who died in a Port Hedland lockup where she was ‘cutting out’ fines. The family are still calling for justice and for measures to prevent more deaths in custody as they await the outcome of the inquest that was held earlier this year. Ms Dhu’s family have renewed calls for the release of shocking footage that was played to the court and general public who attended the inquest. On the final day of the four-week inquest, Coroner Ros Fogliani ruled that releasing the footage into the public domain could cause further trauma and distress to Ms Dhu’s family. Her uncle, Shaun Harris, stated that the public had a right to view the footage and believed, like the response to the Don Dale footage, it would elicit change. ‘It’s traumatising yes, but it still needs to be put out there’, he said. Death in Custody Watch Committee spokesman Marc Newhouse said, ‘Ultimately it’s about transparency and accountability and when things happen behind closed doors and the records of that are suppressed that’s greatly concerning. We hope that others in the community demand to see the footage and for that to be released publicly’. A spokesperson for the State Coroner said that the ruling would not be changed as the Coroner had heard legal arguments at the Inquest back in March. The Office of the WA Attorney General has indicated it will not interfere with the Coroner’s ruling and that if an interested party was dissatisfied with the Coroner’s ruling they should either apply to the Coroner or seek a review or appeal of the ruling.
With another inquest into the March 2013 hanging death of Indigenous young man Jayden Bennell due at the end of August, there have also been calls to streamline the inquest process not just in WA but nationally. Inquests are taking up to three and half years or more to be heard and this is putting undue stress on families and potentially jeopardising the fact-finding efficacy of the inquests due to the passage of time. Researchers in a study led by Stanford University’s David Studdert and colleagues from the University of Melbourne examined more than 5000 inquests held between 2007 and 2013 and concluded that nationally, inquests took an average of 19 months to complete with South Australia taking the longest — some taking up to four years.
The Guardian quoted Professor Studdert as saying that this was the first Australian study to examine cases that took especially long to close, which was important given that delays in inquests could undermine the reliability of witness testimony and prolong public exposure to preventable risks.
STEVEN CASTAN is a barrister, accredited mediator and family dispute resolution practitioner in Western Australia.