Community legal centres call for urgent government action to end Aboriginal deaths in custody


On the 30th Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), Community Legal Centres NSW stands in solidarity with the families of Aboriginal people who have died in custody. We support First Nations peoples’ repeated demands for systemic change.

“30 years and still NO change. 30 years with ongoing pain. When will our cries be heard, when will justice be served!” – Latoya Smith, Aboriginal Engagement Officer and member of Community Legal Centres NSW’s Aboriginal Advisory Group.

Since the beginning of March this year, five Aboriginal people have died in custody. Our hearts go out to all the families grieving for their loved ones, whose ongoing fights for justice are a testament to their love and strength.

“We continue to stand shocked but united in our grief. The passing of time cannot be silenced, as we are even more determined to continue to proactively seek urgent, overdue, systemic reform within our legal system,” said Solicitor Brian Attard, Community Legal Centres NSW’s Aboriginal Advisory Group Board Representative.

"At least 474 Aboriginal people have died in custody since 1991 because of continued government inaction. It is a grave injustice that too many families have to live with every day as they mourn the lives of their loved ones,” said Executive Director of Community Legal Centres NSW Tim Leach.

There is nothing inevitable about Aboriginal deaths in custody – each death is unnatural, devastating and heartbreaking. The RCIADIC provided a blueprint for change. For far too long state and federal governments have held inquiry after inquiry and cumulatively failed to fully implement the report’s recommendations. Three decades on, we call for an immediate end to this deadly government inaction.

“There have been decades of ideas and research to reduce over-imprisonment of our Mob, from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody to justice reinvestment strategies. Yet to press for more prisons and arrests was always a compounding shame for our justice system,” said Solicitor Mark Holden, Member of Community Legal Centres NSW’s Aboriginal Advisory Group.

We strongly support the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services in calling for urgent, systematic change. This includes independent investigations into every death in custody, and full implementation of the RCIADIC’s 339 recommendations.

Any serious effort to end Aboriginal deaths in custody must involve reducing the rates of imprisonment of Aboriginal people. New South Wales’ prison capacity has grown steadily since 2016, with Australia’s largest prison opening near Grafton in 2020. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are imprisoned at the highest rate of any people in the world, and at a rate 16 times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. These facts are nothing to celebrate.

“When it comes to ending deaths in custody, we need bold policy and legislative change. The state government needs to overhaul the harmful, and often fatal, over-policing and over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people,” said Arlia Fleming, Chairperson of Community Legal Centres NSW.

“We need greater investment in programs that empower communities. Funding Aboriginal-led alternatives to prison is critical,” Fleming said.



In solidarity with the families fighting for an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody, Community Legal Centres NSW calls upon the NSW and Federal Governments to:

  • Immediately implement the full 339 recommendations of the RCIADIC
  • Invest in Aboriginal-led community programs, including schools, healthcare, early intervention and diversion programs, and healing programs, diverting funding away from punitive policy approaches that continue to harm communities across the state
  • End the prejudicial and targeted policing of Aboriginal people, including the Suspect Target Management Project
  • Reform unfair bail laws and end discriminatory bail practices, including amending the Bail Act to require bail authorities to consider Aboriginality in decisions
  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old
  • Establish an independent investigative body to report on all Aboriginal deaths in custody
  • Commit to adequately resourcing the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services and Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre
  • Disrupt the care-criminalisation cycle by immediately implementing the full recommendations of the Family is Culture Independent Review, prioritising legislative reforms
  • Implement the Walama Court proposal and fully fund a 5-year pilot
  • Expand the Youth Koori Court and NSW Drug Court to regional areas
  • Decriminalise drug possession for personal use and offensive language
  • Implement an effective National Preventive Mechanism in line with the recommendations of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW
  • Design and implement an ambitious jurisdictional plan to meet the Close the Gap Justice Targets ahead of the national timeline.

On this day and every day, we support the right of all people to protest the continuing injustice experienced by Aboriginal people.

We call on our colleagues in the legal profession to refuse to be silent on this tragic and historic day, and to support families, Aboriginal organisations and grassroots movements in demanding an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Further reading


Endorsed by:

Australian Pro Bono Centre
Animal Defenders Office
Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre
Far West Community Legal Centre
Financial Rights Legal Centre
Hume Riverine Community Legal Centre
Hunter Community Legal Centre
Illawarra Legal Centre

International Social Service Australia
Justice Connect
Inner City Legal Centre
Intellectual Disability Rights Service
Kingsford Legal Centre
Macarthur Legal Centre
Marrickville Legal Centre

Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre
Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Redfern Legal Centre

Refugee Advice and Casework Service
South West Sydney Legal Centre
Staying Home Leaving Violence Broken Hill
Tenants' Union of NSW
Warra Warra Legal Service Broken Hill
Welfare Rights Centre
Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre
Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service Broken Hill
Youth Law Australia