If not us, then who?
By Jerome Doraisamy: Where do criminal defence firms stand on black deaths in custody?
There are numerous social issues, including deaths in custody, whereby lawyers in the criminal law space can and must lend their professional weight to drive change.
Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was held, over 430 Indigenous Australians have died in custody across the country, amounting to an average of 15 Indigenous Australia dying per annum, or more than one per month, in custody over the past 29 years.
YFS Legal solicitor Candice Hughes – who last year won the Indigenous Lawyer of the Year category at the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards – said this issue makes it difficult to be an Indigenous woman, mother, and youth justice lawyer all at once.
“But it is in the culture, resilience, strength and pride of our people that drives me every day to be a better mother, community member, and lawyer. I am privileged to be a lawyer, and for me, this comes with a responsibility to advocate for human rights and fight against the injustices committed against all vulnerable people, but particularly our First Nations people,” she reflected.
“This is why I chose to work in a community legal centre and work directly with our young people. While this issue is personal for me, it is not just an issue for First Nations people. This is a national issue, a national shame.”
Photo sourced from the front cover of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report
Indigenous lawyers Teela Reid and Matthew Karakoulakis last week told Lawyers Weekly that unless Australian legal professionals turn up for issues that matter, system change will never occur. Criminal defence lawyers (who are closer to such social issues than those in commercial practices) appear to take a similar approach, acknowledging their unique position to be more forceful in advocating for change.
The stance of lawyers on this issue
Karim + Nicol Lawyers was unequivocal in its proclamation that not enough has been done to address black deaths in custody, calling national statistics on this issue “shameful and inexcusable”.
“Being a firm made up mostly of women from minority groups, we see this as a serious issue entrenched in Australian history, and the undeniable incarceration rates of Indigenous people only serve to highlight that. In NSW, Indigenous people make up 2.8 per cent of the total population yet represent approximately 25 per cent of the prison population,” K+N solicitor director Carrie Nicol said.
Korn MacDougall partner Warwick Korn said that his firm is “strongly opposed” to deaths in custody, with the rates of Indigenous persons dying being of particular concern.
“We are trained around the premise that all members of the community are equal in the eyes of the law and that the community, at least in Australia, is a multicultural one. Therefore, to see any institutionalised examples of that equality not being applied is of the deepest concern,” he said.
Armstrong Legal senior associate Trudie Cameron said the rate of Indigenous deaths in custody is “appalling”: “Targeting of Indigenous persons by police, unlawful arrests and excessive use of force [are] an ongoing problem.”