Buck passing threatens Aboriginal lifeline

A simple phone call service hailed as saving the lives of thousands of arrested Aboriginal people is under threat because of a funding feud between the state and federal governments.

NSW police are required by law to call the Aboriginal Legal Service if an Aboriginal person is taken into custody as part of the custody notification service. Preliminary legal advice is offered along with an independent voice to ask if the arrested person is doing OK?

The ALS speaks to about 300 arrested people a week, or 14,000 a year, and not one person has died in custody since it began in 2000, but now the service is under threat due to a funding shortage.

While the ALS secured $17 million in federal funding in the latest budget, chief executive Phil Naden said the Custody Notification Service is facing the axe due to a shortfall of $500,000.

ALS staff took a pay cut last October to keep the 24-hour CNS hotline running, but it is no longer feasible and will end on June 30, Mr Naden said.

"Something as minor as asking how someone is doing in a volatile and vulnerable situation is vital and reduces self-harm," he said. "To lose this service puts lives at risk."

A spokeswoman for federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said it was up to the NSW government to fund the service.

"Despite the CNS being required under NSW law, the NSW government has never made a contribution towards the cost of this service," she said.

A spokeswoman for the NSW Attorney-General said Aboriginal services were a Commonwealth funding issue.

"Given this service has previously been funded by the Commonwealth, we call on them to provide the required funding to continue this service," she said.

Mr Naden said it was "disappointing" both governments were passing the buck on the issue.

"This is a service built on one of the recommendations from the country's most damning reports, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody," he said.

NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Geoff McKechnie, corporate spokesman for Aboriginal issues, said he was preparing an assessment to be handed down this week.

"We are currently talking to stakeholders to assess what it would mean operationally to police if the CNS did not exist," he said.

This story Buck passing threatens Aboriginal lifeline first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.