WA should stop locking people up for unpaid fines, say family and lawyers as coronial inquest begins into Ms Dhu’s death in custody

The coronial inquest into Ms Dhu’s tragic death in police custody begins in Perth tomorrow morning.

Ms Dhu, a 22 year old Yamatji Aboriginal woman, died two days after she was locked up in a South Hedland police station for failing to pay off her fines. Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, said that the family wants truth and justice. 

“Our girl should have never been locked up. We are devastated. We want to make sure that something like this never happens again,” said Ms Roe. 

“We call on Premier Barnett to take real action to reduce the risks of more Aboriginal people dying in custody. Enough is enough. Why are vulnerable people who cannot pay their fines being locked up in this day and age?” said Ms Roe. 

Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, said that her family is still waiting for answers. 

“If the Government had listened to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over twenty years ago, my daughter might be here today. Western Australia urgently needs to rebalance the justice system so that it’s fair,” said Ms Della Roe.  

The Human Rights Law Centre is working closely with the Aboriginal Legal Service and Ms Dhu’s family in the lead up to the inquest. The HRLC’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said that the Western Australian Government should abandon its policy of locking people up for unpaid fines, and embrace a new, fairer system like that in New South Wales.

“The policy of locking people up for unpaid fines is outdated. Western Australia needs a more flexible system that allows vulnerable people to deal with their fines in a way that benefits the community, rather than breaks the community,” said Ms Barson.

In Western Australia, people who cannot pay off their fines either via a payment plan or through community work will be imprisoned and since 2010, around 1000 people have been sent to prison each year solely for unpaid fines.

In NSW the justice system has flexible options for dealing with unpaid fines including work and development orders that target the reason a person received the fines in the first place. It is reported that no one has been imprisoned for unpaid fines in NSW since the late 1990s.

“Locking people up for unpaid fines obviously hits poor and disadvantaged people the hardest. It's a policy that unfairly impacts women and Aboriginal people most. Rather than addressing the problem of unpaid fines, locking people up compounds the issues that cause people to get fines in the first place,” said Ms Barson.

Western Australia has the highest Aboriginal imprisonment rate in the country, with Aboriginal people being 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people.

“There are some people in our community, people living in poverty, children, people in family violence situations, who simply cannot pay their fines. A fair system accounts for this difference. A smart system helps people rebuild their lives,” said Ms Barson.

One in every three women who enter prison in Western Australia are there for unpaid fines. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of women locked up for fine default increased by close to 600 percent.

"Many of the women being locked up have experienced family violence and sexual assault. Locking up women entrenches gender inequality and is particularly harmful. It separates families. It often leaves children without a mother. It risks punishing women we should be protecting and supporting,” said Ms Barson. 

The Western Australian Aboriginal Legal Service is representing Ms Dhu’s family at the coronial inquest, with the pro bono support of Peter Quinlan QC and lawyers from King and Wood Mallesons. 

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