When unpaid fines mean paying with your life, the system is broken
IMAGINE this. You’re 22-years-old, and you should have your whole life ahead of you.
Instead, you’re stuck in a violent relationship, using drugs and facing legal troubles. The bills are piling up, and so are the fines you’ve been ordered to pay by the courts — $3622.
That’s the situation a young Yamatji woman, known as Miss Dhu for cultural reasons, found herself in when she paid the ultimate price, a West Australian coronial inquest has heard.
Miss Dhu died in agonising pain in police custody last year — all because she could not afford to pay her fines.
The case has prompted calls for WA laws to be overhauled, so that vulnerable Australians who cannot pay their fines do not meet the same tragic fate.
Family members who filled the courtroom when a two-week inquest into Miss Dhu’s death opened yesterday gasped and cried while watching security footage of her time in custody at South Hedland Police Station, in the Pilbarra.
Security footage showed a male police officer entering Miss Dhu’s cell and trying to lift her up by her arm, before she slumped back and hit her head on the concrete floor.
The footage showed police dragging and carrying her limp body from the cell to a divvy van.
One officer was heard telling Miss Dhu to “shut up” as she moaned.
Less than an hour later, she was dead.
Nanna Carol Roe pays her respects at Miss Dhu's grave.Source:News Corp Australia
A lethal combination of pneumonia and septicaemia killed Miss Dhu, who the court heard had suffered broken ribs at the hands of her violent partner.
The inquest heard she had repeatedly complained in custody of pain and having difficulty breathing.
Miss Dhu’s father Robert testified she had told him her boyfriend had “flogged” her and broken her ribs.
She was taken to the Hedland Health Campus hospital twice in two days, and each time doctors deemed her fit to remain in custody after giving her medication, including diazepam and paracetamol.
On the third day, Miss Dhu could not move her legs and her body was numb, so police carried her to the van and took her to hospital again.
But one officer believed she pretended to faint when they placed her in a wheelchair.
Dr Vafa Naderi told the court Miss Dhu kept changing her story, which made it difficult to characterise the nature and location of her pain.
“Dr Naderi’s impression was that she was withdrawing from drugs or had behavioural issues,” counsel assisting the coroner Ilona O’Brien said in her opening address.
Unspeakable anguish: Miss Dhu's grandmother Carol Roe is pictured, left, at South Hedland Police Station with Miss Dhu’s mother Della Roe.Source:News Corp Australia
Miss Dhu’s mother Della Roe told the coroner her daughter was family-oriented and bubbly, but that changed when she started dating a much older man and using drugs.
On one occasion, Ms Roe noticed her daughter had a black eye, but when she asked whether her partner had hit her, Miss Dhu replied: “Oh mum, don’t worry. It’s an old one, it’s going away.”
Miss Dhu’s father said he was concerned his daughter was treated cruelly and like a dog in custody.
“They should not treat anybody like that,” he said.
Outside court, Ms Roe sobbed while describing the depression, grief and sleepless nights she suffered as a result of her daughter’s death.
Lawyer Ruth Barson said about 1000 people were jailed every year because of unpaid fines.
“Miss Dhu was a young woman without any money in a domestic violence situation. She was locked up because she had not paid her fines,” Ms Barson told the ABC.
“Even though Miss Dhu tragically died over 12 months ago, the Western Australian Government is yet to change the laws that allowed such a vulnerable young woman to be locked up ... Western Australia urgently needs a fair and a flexible fines system like that in New South Wales which differentiates between those who will not and those who cannot pay their fines.
“Vulnerable people like Miss Dhu who can’t pay their fines should not be locked up; rather they should be given the opportunity to rebuild their lives. It is time for the Western Australia to take action and rebalance the justice system.”
Under pressure: WA Premier Colin Barnett addresses protesters. Picture: Bohdan WarchomijSource:News Corp Australia
Back in 1987, NSW teenager Jamie Partlic was attacked and left in a coma for six weeks by another inmate at Long Bay prison, where he had been locked up for refusing to pay a parking fine.
The laws were then changed so that prison was no longer an option; instead, licences can be suspended, the Sheriff’s Office can confiscated belongings to be sold to pay off fines, and community service can be ordered.
Other legal reforms being debated in WA include a custody notification service like in NSW, where the Aboriginal Legal Service must be notified every time an indigenous person is taken into custody.
The WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee has urged that Miss Dhu’s death ought not be in vain, and is campaigning on Facebook for law reform.