Ward family demands real justice

Issue 

Western Australian attorney-general Christian Porter said on March 17 an interim payment of $200,000 to the family of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward should be "finalised" by the end of the month (leaving unclear whether this meant "paid" or "approved").

Mr Ward died a horrible death in the back of a prison van in January 2008, while being transported over four hours in a non-air conditioned van on a 42° Celsius day. He'd been arrested for a traffic violation.

Last year, the coroner found that the state government department, the private contractor GSL (now G4S) and the two prison van drivers were all responsible for his death.

Porter's announcement came shortly before protest that day by hundreds of people in front of parliament house. Ten days earlier, Mr Ward's widow Nancy had made an impassioned public call for an interim payment. Her family has had to rely on charity and the support of friends since her husband's death.

Porter's promise of an interim ex-gratia payment is important because it is the first, albeit minor, concession made by the government to the campaign for justice for Mr Ward.

The three key demands of the campaign, led by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC), are: compensation, termination of the prisoner transport contract with G4S and for charges to be laid against those responsible for the death.

More than two years have passed and the government is yet to deliver on any of these.

Compensation

Shadow attorney-general John Quigley has publicly campaigned for an overall ex-gratia compensation payment in excess of $3.2 million. This was the amount paid by the state government to Andrew Mallard after he was wrongly jailed for 12 years for a murder he didn't commit.

DICWC chair Marc Newhouse told Green Left Weekly the committee has not been campaigning for a particular figure but believed the amount should be significant. He said $3.2 million was "not enough" to cover the loss experienced by the family and community.

Newhouse suspected the government was planning a payment only to Mr Ward's widow, and said the extended family have also suffered a terrible loss. It was culturally appropriate that they should also be compensated.

Aboriginal Legal Service representative John Bedford told the rally the ALS had written to the government repeatedly since July calling for an ex-gratia payment and, since January, for an interim payment. He said the government had failed to respond.

Porter has said the ALS was responsible for the delayed interim payment, alleging it did not put in a timely application. However, he quickly retreated into the parliament building as Bedford spoke, refusing to respond to calls from the protesters.

The government has already fined $150,000 G4S for Mr Ward's death under the terms of the contract. Newhouse told GLW this amount was "outrageous".

"How can you put a monetary figure [in a contract] on someone's life?" he said. "But $150,000 is inadequate, especially in these circumstances.

"A far more suitable way to deal with a death in custody would be to terminate a contract, particularly as in this case when the coroner has found that the guards and the company are responsible for the death."

Contract termination

Previously, the state government said it couldn't terminate the prisoner transport contract with G4S without suffering a significant financial penalty because there has not been a "material breach" of the contract. A material breach would occur if there were more than one incident involving death in custody in a year.

But speakers at the rally said legislation allows the minister to approve a recommendation from the commissioner of corrective services that a contract be terminated if it was "in the public interest". Action under this clause would cost the government no money and would require only three days notice.

Greens parliamentarian Giz Watson, who addressed the rally, said she would ask the corrective services minister in parliament what his response would be if the commissioner put such a recommendation.

Charges

Protesters called again for charges to be laid against those responsible for Mr Ward's death, including but not limited to the two prison van drivers. Newhouse told GLW that "no legal stone should be left unturned" in the attempt to bring all those responsible to justice.

Government inaction also raises the question of the government's response to the coroner's findings last year. "You'll see that, while they basically say they agree with most of the recommendations, there are no timeframes except in a few cases", Newhouse said.

"A lot [of the government's commitments] are subject to putting up a business case … there has been no reporting back to the public on what has and hasn't been done.

"In our view, that is completely unacceptable."

The rally was more poignant with the participation of family members of another Aboriginal man who died in the East Perth Watch House on March 14. His brother, Paul Haywood, said: "That's his son there; he hasn't got a father. I haven't got a brother, my mother hasn't got a son; and my sister-in-law, she's lost her man'."

His family hadn't been allowed to view the body. His brother was diabetic and was sent to hospital twice — and twice discharged — on the weekend he died. "He should have been in hospital", Haywood said.

Speakers also said another Aboriginal man had collapsed in the back of a prison van in 41°C heat on March 12.

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