Support Structures for the Aboriginal Courts

730. Aboriginal Police. Section 39 of the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 enables an Aboriginal council, with the Minister’s approval, to appoint Aboriginal police and to equip them with a uniform. Under the old Act the Manager, in consultation with the council had the power to appoint Aboriginal police, although there was no requirement to supply uniforms.[1025] Aboriginal police have the function of maintaining peace and good order; specified duties may also be conferred on them by by-law (e.g., ambulance services, fire-fighting and emergency services (s 40, 41)). The Aboriginal police also play an important role in the operation of the Aboriginal court. They are responsible for bringing offenders before the court, presenting evidence and generally assisting in the running of the court. Some courts rarely call any other evidence, and so nearly all convictions are entirely dependent on the Aboriginal police evidence.[1026] Craig, in his study of the Yarrabah reserve near Cairns, comments that at times the Aboriginal police became the de facto court at Yarrabah because when a backlog developed ‘they made fewer arrests, set lower bails and allowed people extra time to pay their fines’.[1027]

731 Problems of Recruitment and Turnover. One feature of the Aboriginal police forces on some reserves is the high turnover.[1028] Craig stated that at Yarrabah between 1968 and 1976, DAIA hired 108 different persons (predominantly young, unmarried men) a total of 195 times to keep the Aboriginal police positions filled. Fifty-four of these people signed on more than once, including 3 who were policemen on 6 different occasions. There were on average 11 Aboriginal policemen at any one time, but they lasted less than 6 months on the job. Eighty per cent of those who left the Aboriginal police did so by voluntary resignation.[1029] Several reasons are suggested for the high turnover. The principal one is the difficulty of fulfilling personal and family obligations which may run counter to the responsibilities of a police officer. As Craig comments:

Being a reserve policeman puts them in the untenable position of having to use authority emanating from the White subsystem to arrest someone like their own uncle. The most common solution to this structural predicament is to call in the White police, but this is not always possible. A policeman is then faced with the choice of upsetting the community order by proceeding with the arrest, or losing face by having to leave the scene with a badge but no prisoner in hand … Most people decide to honor their primary social allegiances and live without the derision that accompanies their job by quitting the force.[1030]

The Commission has been told of an Aboriginal policeman working successfully in a community in which he had no relations, but when he returned to his community, he found it impossible to maintain the same impartiality and resigned.[1031] But a policy of stationing such police in other communities than these to which they belong is not likely to be successful, given a perceived reluctance by many Aborigines to carry out a policing function, or to live, in other than their home community for long periods of time.

732. Aboriginal Gaols. Gaols or lock-ups exist on all trust areas but the new legislation contains no provisions covering them.[1032] The effect of this is that the local gaols are now the responsibility of the Queensland Police.

733. Visiting Justice. There is still provision for a ‘visiting justice’ (s 11), usually a local magistrate, who must travel to a trust area at least every three months to:

  • investigate complaints;

  • inspect the record of punishment of the Aboriginal court;

  • if he is a Magistrate, and an Aboriginal court does not exist, hear offences;

  • report to the Under Secretary on the administration of the area.

The Human Rights Commission has commented that:

the whole concept of a visiting justice has overtones of the gaol or other institution in which people are incarcerated against their will, which is to be subject to regular inspections by that functionary. The concept fits uneasily with that of a community of Aboriginal Queenslanders living freely together under their own institutions.[1033]