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Funding Cuts To Custody Notification Service Could See Deaths In Custody

Legal experts warn cuts to phone line could have disastrous implications.

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Dan Bannister / Getty Images

The Federal Government has confirmed that funding for the New South Wales Custody Notification Service (CNS) will cease. The CNS' latest funding, allocated in 2013, is due to expire on June 30.

The CNS is a phone line, run by the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in NSW and the ACT. It provides 24-hour legal advice and welfare checks on Indigenous people in police custody.

Legal experts say it's a critical and vital way to stop Aboriginal people from dying in custody by ensuring that a person's medical conditions are known to police and that threats of self harm and suicide are dealt with swiftly.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News a spokesperson for Attorney General George Brandis says, "In 2015-16, the Aboriginal Legal Service will receive over $17 million to provide Indigenous legal assistance in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory which is more than a 30 percent increase on recurrent funding since 2007-08."

The department says allocation of those funds are enough to keep the CNS running and that the onus will now be on the ALS to ensure the programs future.

"The Government believes that this level of funding should enable continuation of the ALS NSW/ACT Custody Notification Service"

ALS Chief Legal Officer Jeremy Styles tells BuzzFeed News the government is wrong and that main round funding is not enough to run the CNS, which costs $526,000 dollars a year and employs six lawyers and an administrative officer.

"We're really disappointed, we've had federal funding for this on a year-in-year-out basis since 2008. We really think it should be funded, we don't have sufficient core funding to allow us to fund it without other frontline services seriously effected"

"A death in custody would be a horrific outcome but it may well be a possibility" - ALS Chief Legal Officer Jeremy Styles

ALS NSW/ACT Chief Legal Officer Jeremy Styles (Supplied)

One of the key recommendations from the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 was that police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service every time an Indigenous person is taken into custody.

That recommendation is now part of NSW legislation and the ALS say that the CNS is essential to ensuring that recommendation is upheld.

Since the CNS began in 2000 there have been no Aboriginal deaths in custody in NSW or the ACT and Styles firmly believes that is because of the CNS.

"If the service was wound up the problems would be lack of access to legal advice for Aboriginal people in custody, increased problems in custody, potential deaths in custody, increases in medical problems for Aboriginal people in custody. It's a service that provides a critical welfare service for people in custody."

"We have people as young as 11 or 12 in custody using the CNS. It's also really important for juveniles to understand their rights in custody" - Robyn Hackelis, CNS Solicitor

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

Robyn Hackelis is a solicitor at the CNS. She says the service has saved countless lives.

"I've been doing the CNS for years now and there have just been numerous occasions where the police are held accountable to a higher standard because they know that we're speaking to the clients. The police duty of care is heightened by the fact that we are checking that the client is okay."

Hackelis warns that the state can expect a spike in deaths in custody, like that of a 59-year-old Aboriginal man who died in a Darwin police watch-house in May, if the CNS is cut back.

"It would be such a huge impact. It's hard to even think through all the implications. I mean there has not been a death in NSW since the CNS has been in place, whereas just recently in the Northern Territory there's been a death because they don't have a similar system in place. Unfortunately we are definitely facing an increase in deaths in custody in NSW. "

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Thousands of people rallied to support the CNS earlier this month on social media using the hashtag #SavetheCNS and a petition pleading with the government to continue funding has garnered over 48,000 signatures.

@SenBrandis please, please #SaveTheCNS! #TheWeekly

RT @ALS_NSWACT: 6 lawyers working 24/7 providing legal advice. CNS is devastatingly simple & it works #savetheCNS

The money used to have inquiries into halal, wind farms, and the ABC could be used to fund things like the CNS, which save Aboriginal lives.

Significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody NSW since the CNS began #SaveTheCNS Extend the CNS Australia wide