WA urged to scrap practice of locking people up for unpaid fines as coronial inquest recommences into Ms Dhu’s death in police custody

With the coronial inquest into Ms Dhu’s tragic death in police custody recommencing on Monday, family members and human rights lawyers are urging the Western Australian Government to urgently scrap the practice of locking people up for unpaid fines.

Evidence was provided to the Coroner in November about how Ms Dhu, a 22 year old Yamatji Aboriginal woman (whose first name is not used for cultural reasons), died from septicaemia and pneumonia three days after she was locked up in a South Hedland police station for failing to pay her fines.

Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, said that the family are devastated and frustrated that the Government has not taken necessary steps to prevent similar situations from occurring again.

“Our girl should have never been locked up. She paid the ultimate price for bad laws and bad policies. My granddaughter should be with me today, rather than in the cemetery. The Government must be held to account,” said Ms Roe.

At the time of her arrest, Ms Dhu was in a domestic violence situation.

“She was crying out for help, and she should have been protected rather than punished. The Government must stop locking up so many of our people for small things. It needs to end,” said Ms Roe.

In November the Coroner heard evidence from medical staff and experts. On Monday, the Coroner will begin hearing evidence from police.

The Human Rights Law Centre is working closely with the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and Ms Dhu’s family. The HRLC’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the Western Australian Government is yet to learn the primary lesson coming out of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; that custody should only ever be used as a last resort.

“Western Australia’s criminal justice system is utterly out of balance. The Royal Commission’s recommendations provide Premier Barnett with a roadmap on how to turn this injustice around. The tragedy is we’ve had that roadmap for 25 years now. Action on these issues is long overdue,” said Ms Barson.

Next month will mark 25 years since the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were handed down. Western Australia continues to have the highest Aboriginal imprisonment rate in the country, with Aboriginal people being 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people.

“The WA Government has a choice – to continue punishing people or to provide them with the support they desperately need. Other jurisdictions have taken steps to reduce imprisonment rates and the associated risk of Aboriginal people dying in custody. Western Australia desperately needs to catch up,” 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. 

“The policy of locking vulnerable people up who cannot pay their fines should be abandoned. It’s a backwards policy, it’s a dangerous policy and it’s leading to more and more Aboriginal people being imprisoned,” 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. 


For further information or comments, contact:
Human Rights Law Centre's Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, in Perth on 0417 773 037 or via ruth.barson@hrlc.org.au