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As many as 9 out of ten Aboriginal inmates in Northern Territory (NT) jails suffer significant hearing loss, according to recent research to be published in the Indigenous Law Bulletin.
The research, which tested the hearing of 134 indigenous inmates aged 20 to 60 in jails in Darwin and Alice Springs (13 per cent of the Top End Indigenous prison population), was presented to Deputy Chief Magistrate, Jelena Popovic, and Federal Court judge, Peter Gray, at a meeting of Victorian barristers in early March. Other speakers included Children's Court president, Judge Paul Grant, and Judge John Smallwood, who presides over the County Court Koori list.
The concerning rate of hearing disability in the Aboriginal inmate population was first highlighted in 2010, during a Senate inquiry into the general hearing health of Australians.
The inquiry cites one NT example of a murder conviction involving an Aboriginal man who was later diagnosed as clinically deaf. He had been through the court process using two words, 'good' and 'yes'.
‘Widespread hearing loss among Aboriginal adults arose from endemic childhood ear disease', researcher, Dr Damien Howard said.
‘With hundreds of tribal dialects spoken in remote and regional areas and many accused Indigenous Australians not fluent in English, the poor hearing of Aboriginal adults added to communication woes when they faced police and courts', said National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services chief executive, Shane Duffy.
‘It becomes a miscarriage of justice when our people fail to understand the language used in the courts,' he said.
Michael Cahill, of the Victorian Criminal Bar Association, said there was ‘a real risk of injustice' when an accused did not understand a trial.
‘There is a real difficulty for lawyers representing indigenous clients because they are often non-responsive and appear not to properly understand information given to them or asked of them,' he said.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 29,106 adult prisoners in Australia on 30 June 2011; and, of these, more than one-quarter were Indigenous Australians or Torres Strait Islanders.
Source: The Age
Dr Damien Howard
PO Box 793
Nightcliff, Darwin NT 0814
Ph: (08) 8948 4444
Fax: (08) 8948 3838