NSW bans spit hoods but still some backing in NT

Rudi Maxwell |

The NT stopped using spit hoods on children after a royal commission but the CLP wants them back.
The NT stopped using spit hoods on children after a royal commission but the CLP wants them back.

Human rights advocates are celebrating after NSW has legislated to ban spit hoods.

But they are worried the controversial restraints will be reinstated for use by police on children in the Northern Territory if the Country Liberal Party wins the upcoming election. 

Banning the use of spit hoods brought a rare show of agreement to the NSW Upper House on Thursday night, with a bill passed unanimously prohibiting their use by police, in prisons, youth detention centres and mental health care settings.

It’s the second jurisdiction to ban the restraints, following Fella’s Bill in South Australia in 2021, named in honour of Wayne ‘Fella’ Morrison, who died in custody after having a spit hood put over his head and being placed in the prone position in the back of a transport van.

Latoya Aroha Rule and Alison Whittaker are researchers from the Jumbunna Institute at the University of Technology Sydney and members of the National Ban Spit Hoods Coalition. 

Latoya Rule, who is Fella’s sister and has family in SA and NSW, said they felt better knowing spit hoods could no longer be used in either state.

“And that trauma that comes with knowing that these devices exist at all, ones that were used on my brother, I feel a little tiny bit safe, given everything else going on right now,” they said.

“There are children, disproportionately First Nations children, who are affected by spit hoods and we need to keep pushing for them.”

The Northern Territory stopped the use of spit hoods in juvenile detention after the youth detention royal commission in 2017 and then on children in police watch houses in 2022, but they are still permitted on adults.

However, in February, NT Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro said the CLP had a steadfast commitment to reinstating their use – a move supported by the head of the NT Police Association, who told the ABC that if children consciously spat at police they ‘deserved’ to have spit hoods put over their heads.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has repeatedly recommended banning spit hoods in all jurisdiction.

Spit hoods have been implicated in deaths in custody, particularly of First Nations people, Māori and Pacific people across Australia and New Zealand.

Jumbunna researchers found that spit hoods are disproportionately used against First Nations people in Australia – including Indigenous children – and people with mental illness.

In December the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture recommended that Australia legislate a nation-wide ban on spit hoods.

There have been multiple reviews into their use across the country, including by the Australian Federal Police, which polices the ACT and banned their use in 2023.

In its 2022-23 annual report, the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People revealed prison officers forced a spit hood onto a 17-year-old boy, who was being held in adult custody.

Ms Whittaker said the recent promise by the NT Opposition Leader to reinstate the use of spit hoods showed how fragile policy bans are.

“Spit hoods are instruments of torture that strip people of dignity, humanity and life,” she said. 

Karly Warner, chief executive of the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service said spit hoods are dehumanising, archaic and harmful. 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be grossly over-represented at all stages of the criminal legal system and bear the brunt of any harmful restraint mechanism or other use of force by authorities,” she said.

“We hope the steps being taken to ban spit hoods across Australia will mean that no one else dies in this cruel and preventable way.”