After one year of operations, the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency’s (NAAJA) Custody Notification Service has helped more than 5,000 Indigenous Australians in Northern Territory police custody with anything from access to interpreters and lawyers, to medication and childcare.

Established on July 31 2019, the Custody Notification Service (CNS) is a watchdog for the welfare of Indigenous people in police custody. Northern Territory Police are required by law to notify the NAAJA CNS every time an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into police custody.

NAAJA CEO Priscilla Atkins said the service provides support and reassurance during what can often be a traumatic time.

“The CNS plays an important safeguard for Aboriginal people in police custody. Some of the best outcomes for Aboriginal people over the past 12 months have occurred when the police have worked with the CNS to best assist the person in their custody,” Atkins said.

“We’re checking on their health to see if they need any medical assistance. [We ask], ‘Do you need to contact your family?’ If they’ve got stress or anxiety, we work to de-escalate that, [and ask], ‘Did you have any children in your care that need to be picked up?’”

From 7,401 notifications, the CNS has helped 5,218 people in custody over the last 12 months.

Because 50 per cent of the staff at the CNS are Aboriginal, an Aboriginal person in custody can often get help from their own mob.

Stephen Karpeles is the defence lawyer who coordinates the six-person team that takes calls 24/7 from police stations around the Territory.

He said a large part of the work is providing reassurance to people who are often confused and frightened.

“It can be very confronting because [for] some people, it might be their first time in custody; it is extremely frightening and disempowering, and they’re not provided with much information by police,” Karpeles said.

“We often have people who thank us and say, look, I’m feeling much better now that I have spoken to you and know what’s going on.”

The service can refer people to support services upon their release from custody, from crisis accommodation to domestic violence counselling and even to financial assistance.

The CNS also plays a vital role in connecting people with interpreters. For many Indigenous people in the NT, English may be a second or third language.

Karpeles said in his work as a lawyer, he very rarely saw Indigenous people given access to interpreters in the courts except on the most serious of charges.

“It’s a really good experience using interpreters, because you get far more information from the person in custody.”

“We’re dealing with people at the start of their journey through the criminal justice system, and if we don’t use interpreters, there’s a pretty good chance that the lawyers that sit in the courts won’t use interpreters, the police won’t use interpreters, the court staff won’t use interpreters, so we have to set the standard for their subsequent journey through the criminal justice system.”

NT Police Commander David Proctor is positive about NAAJA’s partnership with the NT Police Force.

“The CNS has been in operation now for some 12 months and has provided some significant outcomes in terms of referrals to the CNS, which totalled some 5,754 for the first 12 months,” he said.

“The CNS now ensures that police proactively provide [Indigenous] people with access to the relevant support services.

“Like all new initiatives, the CNS had some initial teething problems, however both [NT Police] and NAAJA work collaboratively to continuously improve the CNS to provide a safe and secure environment for persons in police custody.”

Karpeles said there has been strong support from the upper ranks of NT Police policymakers but the officers required to contact the CNS took time to come around.

“Particularly in the early days, we encountered a lot of hostility from officers who resented the service and were being obstructive … by the same token, we’ve encountered some absolutely fantastic officers who worked really closely with us.”

The service was first recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

The commissioners later recommended the CNS be funded by the NT Government after three years of Commonwealth funding, which will run out June 30, 2021.

Funding for Indigenous services is always an issue, according to Karpeles.

“Over the years, Aboriginal Legal Services have had to fight for every dollar they get,” he said.

Atkins, however, is positive about the outlook.

“We have a great working relationship with the NT Government and the Police Commissioner and his team, so we do have the support,” she said.

“It’s just trying to identify where the funds will come from.”

By Sarah Smit