Lawyers seek to set important limits on NT police drunk lock-up powers

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) today filed submissions in their case appealing a decision of the NT Court of Appeal, Mole v Prior, concerning an Aboriginal man who was taken into protective custody.

NAAJA’s principal lawyer, Jonathon Hunyor, said that the case seeks to ensure police do not over-use their protective custody powers and avoid using them based on stereotypes. In the Northern Territory the protective custody powers are used approximately 10,000 times each year, with over 90 percent of the people locked up being Aboriginal. 

“Before taking someone into police custody, other, less punitive options should be considered. In many cases taking someone to a sobering up shelter is a far better option than simply locking them up,” said Mr Hunyor.

Section 128 of the Police Administration Act NT allows police to lock someone up for protective custody purposes if the person is intoxicated, in a public place and the police believe they pose a risk to themselves or other people, or they are likely to commit an offence.

“When it comes to locking people up who might not have committed any serious crime, it’s important that we have safeguards to prevent misuse. Our case does not challenge the validity of the protective custody powers, but rather seeks to ensure these powers are used fairly and sparingly,” said Mr Hunyor.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s senior lawyer, Ruth Barson, is coordinating the legal team and said that this case raises important questions about liberty and equality.

“There is no doubt that Aboriginal people are being disproportionately impacted and disproportionately locked-up. The figures strongly suggest these powers are being both misused and overused against Aboriginal people,” said Ms Barson.

This year marks 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released their recommendations. Five of the NT deaths that the Commissioners examined involved Aboriginal people dying in police custody after being locked up for protective custody purposes.

“The Recommendations explicitly state that there should be a law requiring police to consider alternative solutions to the detention of drunk people. It’s time the NT Government learnt the important lessons laid out by the Royal Commission,” said Ms Barson.

“The Northern Territory Government should be doing everything it can to reduce the rates at which Aboriginal people are locked up. Addressing the over-use of police protective custody power is a step in the right direction. There are far safer and more effective ways of preventing harm,” said Ms Barson.

For media inquiries please contact:
Jonathon Hunyor NAAJA Principle Legal Officer on 0410 359 293
Ruth Barson, HRLC Senior Lawyer on 0417 773 037