Inquiry Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Inquiry Type
Royal Commission

Key Dates

1 January 1980 - 31 May 1989
Period of investigation
1987 - 1991
Period of operation
10 August 1987
Announcement date
21 December 1988
Interim Report
April 1991
Final Report


The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established to inquire why so many Aboriginal people die in custody and make recommendations as to how to prevent such deaths in the future. It examined the ninety-nine Aboriginal deaths in the custody of prison, police or juvenile detention centres that occurred between 1980 and 1989. The establishment of the Royal Commission followed public agitation for an inquiry, particularly from Aboriginal communities. The Inquiry considered not only the individual circumstances of each death, but also the wider social, cultural and legal factors that appeared to have a bearing on the high number of Aboriginal deaths.

The Process
The Royal Commission held public hearings and community meetings. The Inquiry conducted internal and commissioned research, received submissions and delivered issues papers.

Governing Legislation
Royal Commissions Act 1902.

Governing Authority
Commonwealth Government of Australia.

Inquiry Locations

Public Hearings
Hearings were held in the towns where the deaths had occurred.

Case Studies
There were no case studies of institutions, but individual reports were prepared on all of the 99 deaths investigated.

Written Submissions
Written submission were received from organisations and individuals, including the family members of victims.

46 papers were commissioned. The internal research unit produced 21 papers.

Roundtable Discussions
Public meetings were held in the communities where the deaths had occurred.

By definition there were no survivor witnesses although family and community members did testify.

The focus was on the dead rather than the institutions in which they died, but several died in juvenile justice institutions.

The Commission found that Aboriginal people died in custody at the same rate as non-Aboriginal prisoners, but they were far more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal people. The Royal Commission identified child removal as a significant precursor to these high rates of imprisonment.

The Inquiry made 339 recommendations. The report recommended that imprisonment only be a last resort. The report also included recommendations for the calling of medical assistance if the condition of detainee deteriorates; greater collaboration with Indigenous communities; improved access to records; and more broadly, to initiate a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.


Final Reports


See also

Acknowledgement: this summary was prepared by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University