August marks three years since Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu died of injuries sustained while detained in Western Australia, but her family’s lawyer is still waiting for charges to be laid.
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Ruth Barson spoke of her fight for justice for the 22-year-old at a Women in Law event hosted by Hume Riverina Community Legal Service.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be imprisoned at 14 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians,” she said.
“I have seen very clearly how profoundly this injustice impacts lives.
“Ms Dhu was arrested three years ago now for failing to pay $3000 in fines and spent three days in custody.
“During her time in custody, she was dragged, dismissed and mocked.
“Ms Dhu complained of severe pain and was taken to hospital on three occasions – on the third, she died very shortly after arriving.”
The Western Australian government is yet to implement the coroner’s findings, handed down in 2016, or even issue a formal apology.
Ms Barson, who spent five years as a human rights lawyer in the Northern Territory, told the room of 60 Border lawyers, advocates and volunteers of how these experiences influenced her view of the current discourse around justice in Victoria, and her drive to help get 16 juvenile detainees out of Barwon prison.
“It occurred to me the toxic law-and-order environment that surrounded the Victorian government’s decision to transfer young people in the first instance to an adult jail was not too dissimilar to the environment that was happening in the NT,” she said.
“The win last week was largely because Victoria, unlike most other Australian jurisdictions save the ACT, has a human rights charter protecting the rights of children.”
Hume Riverina Community Legal Service lawyer Deborah Fisher said the strength of commercial and community lawyers working together to win the case showed how the same connections could be made on the Border.
“The collaboration of community legal centres working together with pro-bono lawyers … shows when we work together, we can make a difference and really see some big change,” she said.
Ms Fisher said it was inspiring to meet such a powerful female human rights lawyer – who worked on taking the Victorian government to the High Court while heavily pregnant with her first child.
“(On law week we celebrate) how we can combine our families and the priority that takes, with a career and career progression,” she said.
“The ability to help people is the reason why we do what we do.”