Smart Justice for Women: response to the Coroner’s findings into the death of Veronica Nelson

February 01, 2023 |

Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: This statement contains references to a deceased person.

On Monday, Coroner Simon McGregor delivered his findings from the Inquest into the death of proud Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson, who died in custody at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre after being refused bail for minor offences. While alone in her cell as her health deteriorated and she lay dying, her calls for help were repeatedly ignored by prison staff.

The Coroner found that Victoria’s current bail laws are discriminatory towards First Nations people and incompatible with Victoria’s Human Rights Charter, calling them a ‘complete and unmitigated disaster’ in need of urgent reform. The 2018 changes to the bail laws are having a devastating impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who the Coroner found are being remanded at ‘grossly disproportionate rates’.  What happened to Veronica is a tragic illustration of the discriminatory impact of Victoria’s unfair bail laws on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Coroner also made several damning findings that the inadequate standard of Veronica’s healthcare received in prison breached her human rights and ultimately contributed to her death.

Smart Justice for Women strongly supports the calls of Veronica Nelson’s family and the Coroner’s recommendation’s for the Andrews government to urgently reform the Bail Act 1977 (Vic) (Bail Act) to stop women like Veronica from being unnecessarily pushed into harmful prisons. We cannot let this happen again and there can be no further delay to these reforms. Smart Justice for Women calls on the Government to act urgently to repeal the reverse onus provisions of the Bail Act to restore the presumption in favour of bail, otherwise hundreds of women will continue to be held needlessly on remand.

We further support the calls of Veronica’s family and the Coroner’s recommendations for the government to overhaul healthcare in prisons, recognising that women in prison need culturally safe, therapeutic, holistic and trauma-informed supports, including timely and equivalent healthcare. The government must fully implement the Coroner’s recommendations with involvement from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities and organisations. 

We call on the Andrews government to adopt a justice re-investment approach, whereby the funds earmarked for prisons should instead be invested in housing, health and community support that divert women away from prisons.  Read more about essential support reforms in Smart Justice for Women’s policy platform, available here.

A statement from Veronica Nelson’s family, Aunty Donna Nelson and Uncle Percy Lovett is here.

To find out more about Smart Justice for Women, visit our website here.

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