Rebecca Maher was taken to Maitland police station about 12.45am on July 19. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers An officer talks on the phone at Maitland police station. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

Rebecca Maher was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station on July 19. Photo: Supplied

An Aboriginal woman has died in a police holding cell, marking the first Aboriginal death in NSW police custody since 2000.

Rebecca Maher, 36, was picked up by police in Cessnock, near Newcastle, and taken to Maitland police station about 12.45am on July 19.

Fairfax Media understands witnesses had called police to report her highly intoxicated on the roadside.

She was placed in the cells at the station. When officers checked on her at 6am she was dead.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT has accused police of failing to follow legal protocols that require them to notify the ALS as soon as an Indigenous person is taken into custody.

It was only notified of Ms Maher’s death in custody on August 12, 24 days later.

The events leading up to Ms Maher’s detention and the reasons for her detention are under close scrutiny.

Police released a statement on July 19 saying “police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated, walking along Wollombi Road, Cessnock”.

In a second statement, on July 25, police said she was taken to the station because “police had concerns for her welfare”.

In that statement, police appealed for witnesses who saw Ms Maher on Wollombi Road, including the occupants of a blue Commodore and an anonymous man who called police.

Initial media reports said there was no evidence of foul play or self-harm inside the cell. An autopsy would determine whether her intoxicated state contributed to her death, the Newcastle Herald reported.

At a rally held in Cessnock earlier this month, Ms Maher’s family read out a statement saying they were only told of the mother-of-four’s death about 12.30pm on July 19.

They say Ms Maher didn’t commit any crime and should not have been detained.

“Without being charged with any crime, Rebecca was taken into police custody as she walked down a street in the NSW rural town of Cessnock,” the statement said.

“Police allege that she was intoxicated, but have given her family no other reason as to why Rebecca was detained.

“Very little information has been given to Rebecca’s family about the circumstances of her death. All that the family has been told is that Rebecca was taken into police custody and without being charged with anything was put into a cell at an early hour (approximately 1am) on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.

“According to the limited information given to her mother, police entered the cell at 6am Tuesday morning to find Rebecca deceased. They contacted Rebecca’s mother with this news some 5-6 hours later at around 12.30pm.”

The family have provided Fairfax Media with a photo of Ms Maher.

Following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, a recommendation was made to develop a protocol whereby an Aboriginal legal service is notified whenever an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained.

This requirement was enshrined in law in the NSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Regulation.

The ALS set up the Custody Notification Service in 2000, a 24/7 phone line, to meet this need.

“We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment,” ALS chief executive Gary Oliver said.

“If the CNS had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome.”

He said the CNS allows a lawyer to give the detainee legal advice and check they’re OK.

“Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medication or whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.

“Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody, and NSW police ensure that person in custody is made safe.”

It’s not yet clear how Ms Maher died in custody or why she was detained.

NSW Police have been contacted for comment.

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