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Overwhelming support for independent First Nations body to investigate deaths in custody

Rachael Knowles -

The New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry into Indigenous deaths in custody has heard collective calls for independent oversight and investigation into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.

The NSW Upper House inquiry began hearings on October 26 and has received 120 written and video submissions.

Many of these submissions supported the establishment of an independent First Nations body to oversee investigation and enforce accountability.

NSW's Bar Association and the nation's first Indigenous silk Tony McAvoy SC told the inquiry an independent Indigenous commissioner could work alongside coroners in investigations.

"If there is an independent investigation body established elsewhere that is a vast improvement on the current system," he said.

"The coroner must be resourced to do its jobâ€"that would mean resourcing the coroner's court with the investigative powers to do the investigation independently."

McAvoy also identified other recommendations.

"There are a number of things that might be done. Including Amendment of the bail laws, investment of community based diversionary and prevention programs, Indigenous specialist courts."

Colin and Nikola Chatfield, parents of Tane Chatfield who died in custody in 2017, told the commission about their desire for justice.

"I am devastated with the way the government has run corrective services, with investigating their own. Police investigating police, corrective services investigating corrective services," said Colin Chatfield in a video submission to the inquiry.

"There is no justice for any Indigenous man, woman, or child that has been murdered at the hands of these monsters."

The Chatfields also supported independent investigstions.

"We would like to see independent investigations coming through, an independent body to investigate each and every death in custody since the start," said Nikola Chatfield.

"You really need to look in this backyard and change your policy and procedures. Build healing centres, not prisons."

Aboriginal community-led not-for-profit organisation Deadly Connections raised the need for self-determination in inquiry recommendations.

"We strongly urge this Inquiry to place Aboriginal self-determination at the centre of its recommendations and recognise that systemic racism underlies the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the justice system which culminates in disproportionate Aboriginal deaths in custody," they wrote in their submission.

"There is also a significant need for greater support for family following deaths of a family member in custody. This should include a central access point for meeting, sharing and healing. Deadly Connections is committed to establishing this cultural, community, healing and social justice hub. We need support and resources to achieve this."

Calls for self-determination were echoed in Ngalaya Indigenous Corporation's submission. Ngalaya is the peak body representing over 750 First Nations lawyers and law students across NSW.

Ngalaya enforced the importance of Walama Court.

"The Walama Court is an opportunity for the NSW Government to demonstrate its commitment to the Closing the Gap justice targets. The over-incarceration of First Nations people in New South Wales requires urgent and decisive action. We strongly recommend the Walama Court as a keystone policy for reducing the over-incarceration of First Nations people," they wrote.

The inquiry is scheduled to hand down its findings in March 2021.

By Rachael Knowles

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