A Coroners Court of Victoria hearing into the death of an Indigenous woman who was arrested for public drunkenness has heard the mother of four suffered a traumatic head injury while in custody that likely led to her death.
In an unusual move, Coroner Caitlin English used her opening statement to foreshadow she will recommend the offence of public drunkenness be abolished in Victoria, due to the continuing public health risk that offence poses.
Ms English told the court: “There has been a significant body of research and inquiry over decades about this offence” and noted despite it being a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in the early 1990s, the offence had still not been removed in Victoria.
Tanya Day, 55, was on a train from Bendigo to Melbourne to visit her daughter in December last year, when police were called because she appeared to be intoxicated and could not produce a ticket.
She was arrested and taken to the Castlemaine police station to sober up.
The court heard CCTV from the police station showed Ms Day suffered five falls while in police custody, including a serious fall where she hit her head at 4.51pm, which led to a traumatic brain injury.
Counsel Assisting the Coroner, Catherine Fitzgerald, told the court police were required to physically check Ms Day every 30 minutes, with a verbal response obtained, but that it appeared she was not checked as required.
“Tanya walked into Castlemaine police station unaided and left nearly five hours later unconscious, or close to it, on an ambulance stretcher,” Fiona McLeod SC told the court.
Ms McLeod, acting for the family, said she would be submitting that Ms Day’s death was “entirely preventable”.
“Despite the falls, and the falls that were observed, no one entered the cell until 8.03pm, despite the clear requirement she be roused and a verbal response sought.”
Ms McLeod also asked the coroner to examine the attitude of authorities who came into contact with Ms Day to see whether there was “systemic, inherent racism in the response of any police officers, V/Line officers and ambulance officers”.
Ms Day was an outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights and had been protesting against deaths in custody prior to her death.
Her daughter Belinda said the Day family would not rest until they had achieved some sense of justice.
“We as Aboriginal people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, both of which were not afforded to our mum when she was at her most vulnerable,” she said.
“Nothing that comes from the coronial process will ever bring back our mum. But if we can change the system that continues to victimise Aboriginal people, her death will not be in vain.”
Ms Day’s uncle, Harrison Day, also died in custody after being arrested for not paying a fine for public drunkenness.
His death was investigated by the royal commission in the 1990s, which recommended the offence be abolished.
Outside the court, the CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services, Wayne Muir, called on the Victorian government to immediately change laws around public drunkenness.
“Act now. Don’t wait for the outcome of this inquiry, because you know this is coming,” Mr Muir said.
“Show good faith, show leadership and let’s see some action in terms of legislative reform in this state.”
If the Victorian government removes the offence, Queensland will be the last state in Australia where public drunkenness remains illegal.
Victoria Police Professional Standards Command conducted an oversight review of the incident, but the results of that review were yet to be made public.
Representatives from Ambulance Victoria were also in court on Thursday.
Ms McLeod told the court the timeliness and appropriateness of the response of paramedics should be examined.
Ambulance Victoria issued a statement saying they would like to extend their deepest sympathy to the Day family and understood their concern.
They also revealed they had commenced an internal investigation into the matter.
Victoria Police expressed sympathies for the family, but said they would not comment while the coronial process was ongoing.