Elders in court 'a more just system'
Mark Dodd

A LANDMARK study of Customary Law recommends Aboriginal courts as one way of delivering more equitable treatment of indigenous people in the West Australian justice system.

The 472-page discussion paper out today makes 93 recommendations and covers family violence, criminal justice, police and prisons and community governance.

The Law Reform Commission of Western Australia says it hopes the findings, which it describes as "practical recommendations", will be quickly adopted by the Carpenter Labor Government.

It is understood one of the main findings includes a call for the establishment of pilot Aboriginal courts in the state -- a reform strongly supported by the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia.

"The ALS is very keen for the Government to establish Aboriginal sentencing courts because the current system is not working for Aboriginal people," said Peter Collins, the West Australian Director of Legal Services for the ALS.

"Incarceration rates for Aboriginals in this state are among the highest in the nation."

Mr Collins told The Australian yesterday that the establishment of Aboriginal courts in the eastern states had resulted in a dramatic fall in reoffending rates, especially in Victoria.

He said in its first year of operation, out of 80 cases heard before the Koori Court in Victoria, only five cases of reoffending were reported.

And he strongly rejected any suggestion that Aboriginal courts were a soft option.

"The reality is the opposite. The magistrate makes the decisions in the presence of Aboriginal elders who know the defendant personally.

"An enormous amount of shame is inflicted on the offenders as a result."

State Attorney-General Jim McGinty told The Australian yesterday that a fresh approach was needed in the delivery of Aboriginal justice.

He said Western Australia had one of the highest imprisonment rates of Aboriginal people in the country and it was vital to address the imbalance.

Indigenous people make up about 3 per cent of the state's population, yet in 2004 Aboriginal people accounted for 40per cent of the prison population.

The situation is even worse in juvenile detention centres, where between 70 and 80 per cent of the children are Aboriginal.

Currently, under the Young Offenders Act, children caught committing minor crimes can be cautioned by police or referred to juvenile justice teams.

"Unfortunately, only 55per cent of Aboriginal juveniles formally dealt with by police in 2001 received the benefit of a diversionary option, compared with 80per cent of all non-Aboriginal children," Mr McGinty said.

"The recognition of traditional law will provide us with an opportunity to address some of the injustices and disadvantages faced by indigenous people in the West Australian legal system.

"A greater recognition of Aboriginal customary laws represents a major step forward in the process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous West Australians."

      © The Australian