Daniel Andrews promises Victorian bail law reform after inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Daniel Andrews has vowed to take “full responsibility” to loosen Victoria’s bail laws, with reforms to be introduced in the first half of the year, after the damning inquest findings into the death in custody of First Nations woman Veronica Nelson.

The premier on Tuesday said the state government had been working on a raft of changes for some time, but would not be drawn on what they would include.

Andrews said there was “clearly a need to reform the law” and ensure there was a clear distinction in the legislation between violent offending and non-violent offending.

“I take responsibility to make the necessary changes and that’s exactly what we’ll do to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

“There is a bail issue here – whether [Nelson] ought to have been in custody at all. That’s one issue.

“Almost regardless of that issue … if you’re in pain, and you’re calling for help, you should be taken seriously and she was not taken seriously. The vulnerability of being in a custodial setting – that was not applied. So there are a raft of different failures.”

Related: ‘Complete, unmitigated disaster’: inquest into Veronica Nelson’s death urges overhaul of ‘discriminatory’ Victorian bail laws

It comes a day after coroner Simon McGregor delivered damning findings into the January 2020 death of Nelson.

McGregor found the death was preventable and said corrections had failed to provide her with adequate health care.

The coroner handed down 39 recommendations, including an urgent review of the state’s bail act – widely known as one of the toughest in the country.

The 37-year-old Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman died alone in her cell at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

She died from complications of Wilkie’s syndrome, in a setting of withdrawal from heroin.

McGregor also raised concerns about the monitoring of deaths in custody by the corrections department, including what he described as a “disturbing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement” between departments.

He said if her death had not proceeded to a coronial inquest, the internal report, death in custody report and formal debrief would have remained as the only official investigations into Nelson’s passing.

“It is a deeply concerning prospect to contemplate,” McGregor said.

He also pointed to a debrief following Nelson’s death where the efforts of prison staff were applauded.

McGregor noted that, in the 12 months after Nelson’s death, four more women died at the same jail.

One of those women was also Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

He also referred the prison’s healthcare provider, Correct Care, to prosecutors because it failed to prevent a risk to the health and safety of non-employees.

Correct Care has acknowledged the coroner’s findings and will review them, a spokesperson said.

Related: ‘Without dignity’: how Veronica Nelson’s death exposed cruelty of Victoria’s bail laws

The state government made changes to the bail act in 2018 under expert advice in response to the 2017 Bourke Street massacre.

“The bail act has a discriminatory impact on First Nations people, resulting in grossly disproportionate rates remanded in custody, the most egregious of which affects alleged offenders who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women,” McGregor said.

He also recommend that the Victorian government and peak Aboriginal organisations develop a review and implementation strategy for the 339 recommendations of the 1991 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service’s chief executive, Nerita Waight, called on the government to fix the bail laws, to overhaul prison health care and to address systemic racism within the legal system.

“It shouldn’t fall on families and their lawyers to push for proper investigations into deaths in custody,” Waight said.