Pressure builds on Victoria to overhaul bail laws in response to Indigenous woman’s death on remand

Ahead of coroner handing down findings into death of Veronica Nelson, her partner says she ‘shouldn’t have been in jail’

Legal groups, MPs and the partner of Veronica Nelson are urging the Victorian government not to squander the opportunity to overhaul the state’s bail laws following a major coronial inquest into her death.

Coroner Simon McGregor will on Monday hand down his findings into the death of the 37-year-old Indigenous woman, who was found in her cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in January 2020 after making repeated calls for help over the intercom system.

On Tuesday, the Age reported that sources familiar with the report say the coroner will find that her death was preventable.

McGregor is also widely expected to recommend changes to the state’s bail laws, which Guardian Australia understands will be accepted by the government if they only concern those accused of low-level offences.

Veronica’s partner of 20 years, Uncle Percy Lovett, said no other woman should have to go through what Veronica did.

“The bail laws have got to be changed, it’s ridiculous how they are. Veronica shouldn’t have been in jail,” Lovett told Guardian Australia.

Nelson was arrested in Melbourne on suspicion of shoplifting before she appeared in court without a lawyer, was refused bail and was taken to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre on 31 December, 2019.

Lovett was present at her bail hearing. In his submission to the inquest, he said “no lawyer, no police officer, no court employee and no support worker bothered to speak to him”.

“We don’t have a chance to say or do anything, they don’t listen to us or speak to us,” he said on Tuesday.

Her incarceration was possible under changes to the state’s bail laws, introduced after the 2017 Bourke Street massacre, to help keep repeat violent offenders out of the community.

Before the changes, an accused had the “presumption of bail”. Now, a “reverse onus” test applies, requiring them to show “compelling reasons” or “exceptional circumstances” to be released on bail. The test is increasingly being questioned in the lead-up to the coroner’s findings being published.

The inquest heard the changes have disproportionately affected vulnerable Victorians, including women and First Nations people, many of whom are remanded in custody for minor offences that would not ordinarily carry a sentence of imprisonment.

In her opening address to the inquest, Sharon Lacy, the counsel assisting the coroner, said more than 60% of all Aboriginal women held in Victorian prisons in 2021 were held on remand – an increase from 25% in 2012.

The coroner will also refer private healthcare provider Correct Care Australasia (CCA) to the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions to consider whether the firm should be prosecuted for breaching the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, according to the Age.

In a statement, a Victorian government spokesperson said any recommendations from the coroner would be carefully considered.

“Fundamentally, our bail laws need to protect the community without having a disproportionate or unintended impact on those accused of low-level offending who do not present a risk to community safety,” the spokesperson said.

“We know that more needs to be done to address the over-representation of Aboriginal Victorians in the justice system – and we’ve implemented a range of reforms to reduce the rate of Aboriginal people on remand and in custody.”

Last week, the government announced it would stop outsourcing services for female prisoners to private providers, which Lovett welcomed.

The shadow attorney general, Michael O’Brien, on Tuesday said the opposition would consider any sensible bail reform proposals.

“But given the horrific crimes which led to bail laws being tightened – including Bourke Street – Labor must not put community safety at risk with any potential changes,” he said in a statement.

The Greens leader, Samantha Ratnam, said she would introduce a bill to parliament if the government did not act first.

“The government knows what it needs to do. It needs to stop performing law-and-order politics and get on with reforming Victoria’s broken bail laws,” she told reporters.

Guardian Australia understands other crossbenchers, such as the Liberal Democrat MP David Limbrick and Animal Justice party MP Georgie Purcell, are willing to work towards reform that would prevent people accused of minor crimes from being remanded in custody. Their support could be crucial if the opposition declines to support changes in the upper house.

Amala Ramarathinam from the Human Rights Law Centre said Victoria’s bail laws were among the “most dangerous and discriminatory” in the country.

“The evidence is clear – prisons do not make communities safer,” she said.

“A brave Victorian government would stop propping up a system of cruelty by overhauling the state’s bail laws.”

Changes are also supported by the Law Institute of Victoria, Victoria Legal Aid, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Liberty Victoria and a recent parliamentary inquiry into the issue.

Lovett said it is his hope Veronica is remembered as the “loving girl that she was”.

“She wanted to live life the best way she could. She was kind and always looked out for everyone, didn’t matter who they were,” he said.


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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