Former chief justice named as head of Northern Territory juvenile detention inquiry

Commission to report by 31 March on treatment of children in the youth detention system and whether its oversight was adequate

The former chief justice in the Northern Territory Brian Ross Martin AO has been appointed royal commissioner to investigate the territory’s juvenile justice system.

The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the terms of reference for the royal commission into the treatment of children in the Northern Territory’s youth detention system on Thursday.

The commission is due to report by 31 March 2017.

“At the start of this week, Australians were shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children at the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory,” Turnbull said.

“There can be no greater responsibility bestowed on an adult, a parent, a government institution, than the protection of a child in their care.”

The royal commission was announced the morning after the ABC’s Four Corners program showed shocking footage on Monday of instances of apparent abuse of teenage detainees and examined long-running issues and instances of mistreatment in the Northern Territory youth justice system.

Teenager hooded and restrained in Northern Territory detention. Source: ABC

CCTV footage showed the restraint and spit-hooding of one youth, as well as another being stripped and physically held down by guards on more than one occasion.

Four Corners shows boy being stripped by Northern Territory detention staff. Source: ABC

The attorney general, George Brandis, said the terms of reference had been designed so the royal commissioner could address the specific issues in the Four Corners program.

But they would also give him power to look beyond the Don Dale youth detention centre and the youth detention system, Brandis said.

However, the terms of reference are specific to the Northern Territory and do not suggest consideration of juvenile detention in any other state or territory.

Specifically, the royal commission has been asked to examine:

  • failings in the child protection and youth detention systems of the government of the Northern Territory;
  • the effectiveness of any oversight mechanisms and safeguards to ensure the treatment of detainees was appropriate;
  • cultural and management issues that may exist within the Northern Territory youth detention system;
  • whether the treatment of detainees breached laws or the detainees’ human rights; and
  • whether more should have been done by the government of the Northern Territory to take appropriate measures to prevent the reoccurrence of inappropriate treatment.

The scope of the inquiry will encompass the period since the Northern Territory’s Youth Justice Act (2006) has been in operation.

Turnbull acknowledged that, although Indigenous Australians made up 45% of the population of 10- to 17-year-olds in the Northern Territory, 95% of people of that age in detention were Indigenous.

Asked whether the royal commission would consider racism, Martin said it would consider “whether racism does or doesn’t play a role” in the culture of the detention system in the NT.

“This is about child protection systems, it is about the culture. You will notice that the terms of reference include questions about the culture within the system,” Martin said.

He said if people believed racism played a role they could give evidence to the royal commission but it was “not appropriate at this time to make any predictions about what does or doesn’t play a role within the system in the Northern Territory”.

Turnbull said the royal commissioner was “completely independent of any government”, rejecting a question that suggested Indigenous Australians might view the inquiry as “compromised” because of consultation with the Northern Territory government on its terms of reference.

Asked about perception of a conflict of interest due to his role in the NT justice system, Justice Martin said he couldn’t see how one would arise.

“I don’t see that at all. I see the advantages of a knowledge of the territory.

“There’s never been any suggestion that this sort of treatment was brought to my attention or the attention of other supreme court judges,” he said.

Martin said he may have sentenced a young person held in detention. “But never in my experience, when a child offender has come before the court has anyone stood up and said ‘that child offender has been mistreated in a significant way within the system’.”

“So the mere fact that I might have sentenced someone, I don’t see as a problem at all.”

Adam Giles, the chief minister of the Northern Territory, welcomed the establishment of a royal commission, and thanked Turnbull for agreeing to terms of reference that consider historical and cultural issues.

“There are too many Aboriginal people in Northern Territory prisons,” Giles said.

“It is commonly known that there is an overrepresentation of Aboriginal Territorians in the justice system. That must change … the royal commission is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past.”

NT Labor has said it would seek to remove itself from involvement in the administration of the royal commission should it win government next month.

The shadow corrections minister, Natasha Fyles, said Labor welcomed the terms of reference and was broadly happy with them but remained concerned the federal and NT governments didn’t adequately consult with groups including Indigenous and justice organisations.

“We also have strong concerns that the CLP government was involved with the drafting of the terms of reference and will also be involved in the administration of this royal commission,” she told media on Thursday afternoon.

“Territory Labor, if privileged to be elected in August, will participate in the royal commission but seek not to be involved in the administration.”

Fyles said the terms of reference highlighted child protection and the Youth Justice Act and that those two, with the focus on detention as well, would encompass youth justice as a whole.

“We need to make sure this report focuses on youth justice so we have a pathway for early intervention, prevention and rehabilitation within the youth justice system.”


Gareth Hutchens , Paul Karp and Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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