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Stoush over Aboriginal death in NSW cell

AAP logoAAP 16/08/2016

NSW has recorded its first indigenous death in custody in 16 years, with police accused of failing to alert specialist lawyers about the Aboriginal woman's arrest before she died.

Aboriginal Legal Service NSW chief executive 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, under recommendations made by the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths 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.

Mr Oliver says that while the notification system had been working well, with no indigenous deaths in custody since 2000, it seemed there had been a "procedural failure" with Ms Maher.

"If the custody notification system had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome," he said in a statement on Tuesday.

NSW Police did not respond to the allegations.

"A critical incident investigation is underway with all information to be provided to the coroner. It would be inappropriate to comment further," a police spokesperson said.

Mr Oliver said he hoped the coronial inquiry into Ms Maher's death would clarify the reason as to why she was detained, the extent of safeguards for her while she was in the holding cell, and why she died.

NSW Labor's aboriginal affairs spokesman David Harris is calling for an immediate investigation into the woman's death and why police didn't follow proper protocol.

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

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