NT repeals punitive alcohol laws but unjust paperless arrest laws remain

NT repeals punitive alcohol laws but unjust paperless arrest laws remain

The Human Rights Law Centre today welcomed the repeal of Northern Territory alcohol laws that unfairly and disproportionately impact Aboriginal people, but urged the Government to follow through on its promise to remove draconian paperless arrest laws.

Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the new laws, which abolish alcohol protection orders and alcohol mandatory treatment, were a step in the right direction.

“The Northern Territory locks up people at a rate like no other jurisdiction in Australia, and overwhelmingly, it locks up Aboriginal people. The reforms are a positive step towards turning the tide on the NT’s shocking imprisonment rates and tackling problem drinking through sensible evidence-based approaches,” said Ms Musk.

The Alcohol Harm Reduction Bill 2017 removes alcohol protection orders, which criminalise drinking for those subject to an order, and alcohol mandatory treatment orders, which force people against their will into rehabilitation centres.

“These laws have been used overwhelmingly against vulnerable and disadvantaged people, the vast majority of whom are Aboriginal,” added Ms Musk.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency and the Human Rights Law Centre challenged the racially discriminatory impact of the alcohol protection order laws in the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 2016. A decision is yet to be handed down.

“Alcohol misuse is a problem for many towns and communities across the Territory. Individual alcohol misuse is best tackled for what it is – a health problem, requiring holistic and culturally appropriate health responses. Laws that unfairly criminalise Aboriginal people for drinking don’t help,” said Ms Musk.

Related: The NT Government must rein in excessive police lock up powers to avoid future deaths in custody

The Bill does not address ‘paperless arrest’ laws, which allow police to arrest people on the belief that they may commit a minor offence, such as making undue noise or singing an obscene song. The Northern Territory Government had promised to abolish the laws but they are still in operation. Excessive protective custody laws also remain, which allow police to lock someone up if they are drunk in a public place and police think they are likely to commit an offence, however trivial.

“If the Government is serious about reducing the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people, and reducing the risk of deaths in custody, it must remove draconian paperless arrest laws and wind back alcohol lock-up powers,” said Ms Musk.

The Bill brings back the Banned Drinker Register and creates a framework for encouraging people to access treatment and support, however there is a lack of detail about how the effectiveness of the scheme will be evaluated. The Bill also introduces an offence of knowingly supplying alcohol to a person on the Register.

“While it is positive that people won’t be criminalised for drinking like they were in the past, we are very concerned about the impact of a new offence for supplying alcohol, especially on families and partners. It is critical that the Government carefully monitor and evaluate the impact of these laws”, said Ms Musk.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s recent submission to the Review of Alcohol Laws and Policies in the NT can be found here.