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Aboriginal cell death probe urged in NSW

AAP logoAAP 16/08/2016

There are calls for a separate investigation into the death of an Aboriginal woman in custody last month, with NSW Police being accused of failing to alert specialist lawyers about her arrest before she died.

The head of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW, Gary Oliver, says despite long-standing protocols, police didn't tell his organisation that 36-year-old Rebecca Maher had been taken into custody in the early hours of July 19 at Maitland.

This was despite a special 24-hour notification service having been introduced in 2000 requiring police to alert the ALS whenever an Aboriginal person is in custody.

Ms Maher was found dead in her cell at Maitland police station, in the state's Hunter Valley, around 6am, less than six hours after her arrest.

But the ALS claims police still didn't alert the legal service about her or reveal she was Aboriginal when reporting her death in a media release later that day.

The statement said Ms Maher was arrested by officers who had found her intoxicated and stumbling along Wollumbi road in Cessnock.

ALS NSW was finally notified of Ms Maher's death on August 12, nearly a month later.

Her death is the first in the 16-year history of the notification system.

"If the custody notification system had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome," Mr Oliver said.

NSW Police have not responded to the allegations, saying it would be inappropriate to comment further as a critical incident investigation is under way.

But the state opposition's Aboriginal Affairs spokesman David Harris says a thorough investigation is needed into Ms Maher's death and why police did not follow proper protocol.

"It's concerning how this information was released and why it took so long," he said.

"My thoughts are with the woman's family at this tragic time".

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