On Monday, ABC Radio broadcast a segment highlighting calls for an Aboriginal liaison person to be appointed to Coroners Courts in all Australian states and territories.
An Aboriginal liaison person would be there to assist bereaved Aboriginal families to navigate the coronial process after the death of a loved one.
Research indicates that as Aboriginal peoples, we are overrepresented in almost every category of reportable death, including violent or suspicious deaths, deaths in State custody, and deaths as a result of police operations.
It follows then that Aboriginal peoples in Australia are overrepresented in the coronial system, and that our families are disproportionately dragged into a system that does very little to support us.
Appointing an Aboriginal liaison person in each coronial court in the country would be a real, impactful start to better engaging bereaved Aboriginal families in the coronial process.
However, appointing an Aboriginal liaison person will do little to address the very real, traumatic, systemic inadequacies that plague coronial systems across the country.
I recently undertook research examining the coronial system in New South Wales and spoke at length with the legal professionals who represent the many Aboriginal families who, through the most tragic of circumstances, are entangled in the coronial system each year.
These professionals spoke to me of the immense frustration and disillusionment families feel when they wait, on average, up to eighteen months after the death of their loved one for the coronial inquest to begin. One person spoke of a family who waited five years for the inquest to begin.
Sometimes, it may be more than twelve months before the family is contacted about a court date, and so for those twelve months or more they are in a state of limbo, not knowing what is to happen next, or when.
Another described to me a situation where a family was unable to get any information about where their loved one’s body was being kept, or where it would be taken to.
Can you imagine the anguish this must have caused?
Many of the professionals I spoke with told me of the many different information streams, how it is not always clear who to call or to speak with even for them, let alone for bereaved family members.
This lack of information and communication can leave many families feeling completely disengaged and excluded from the process, not to mention compounding their grief and distress.
And what about families in regional and rural New South Wales?
The lack of resources and funding provided for coronial matters outside of Sydney is almost non-existent.
Might an Aboriginal liaison person be appointed in regional and rural areas too?
The appointment of an Aboriginal liaison person to the Coroner’s Court would no doubt be beneficial to bereaved and grieving Aboriginal families.
In addition to providing a more culturally appropriate environment, they could act as a point of contact, simplifying the information streams that are too often so difficult to navigate.
They could maintain contact with families, ensuring that the bereaved feel engaged and included in the coronial process. They could refer families to the Aboriginal Legal Service, or to the Coronial Unit within Legal Aid NSW where appropriate.
But one person can’t do it alone.
And one person certainly can’t do it when the Coroner’s Court is not being funded as the specialist court that it is.
But it would be a start. And we need to start somewhere.
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