15 November 2022

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner should have stayed in the background

| Ian Bushnell
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Brittany Higgins and ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner, Heidi Yates

Brittany Higgins and ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates leave the court after Bruce Lehrmann’s trial was declared a mistrial. Photo: Albert McKnight.

The appearance of ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates alongside Brittany Higgins after the trial of her accused rapist Bruce Lehrmann had been aborted raised many eyebrows.

What was a government statutory office holder doing lending support and the authority of her office to a complainant as she made a statement to the media, most of which could not be reported?

Ms Yates could be seen nodding and emoting as the distressed Ms Higgins spoke to the media.

She had been supporting Ms Higgins throughout the 12-day trial, which will now have to be re-run in February.

But this was the most public and dramatic scene from the trial events and broadcast across the nation.

Asked about her appearance with Ms Higgins, the Commissioner told annual reports hearings last Friday (11 November) that she took a broad interpretation of the legislation so “victim-survivors” of alleged crimes could be supported throughout the court process.

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“A narrow interpretation of offence … which limited support to matters where a court had delivered a finding of guilt would not, in our office’s view, be [in line] with the beneficial intent of that legislation,” she said.

That would mean her office could not support most of the people who sought help.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury backed that view, saying that if a crime had to be proven first, nobody would get any support until after the court case had finished.

He said Ms Yates’ role had only received such scrutiny because the intense media interest meant she was filmed at the court more often than if it were a normal trial.

That is precisely the point, and the optics would not have gone undiscussed when Ms Yates was considering how Ms Higgins should be supported during the trial.

The question is not whether Ms Yates’s office should provide support but in what form, by whom and when.

Ms Yates chose to personally support Ms Higgins throughout one of the most sensational and publicised trials the ACT Supreme Court had ever run.

It involved an alleged sexual assault in the office of a Minister at Parliament House after a staffers’ drunken night out.

One could not get a more salacious story in a town where politics, power and the public service are the staff of life.

In that context, the presumption of innocence, already so traduced from the former Prime Minister down, takes on even more importance.

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It was unwise and inappropriate for Ms Yates to personally flank Ms Higgins, something that certainly does not happen at every trial.

Others less prominent could have been given the task, and certainly without offering the affirming gestures as the cameras rolled.

The episode only adds to a series of statements and events that give strength to the accused’s defence team that obtaining a fair trial in such a febrile environment is impossible.

Indeed, Ms Higgins’ comments made in the wake of the mistrial have since been referred to the court and police by Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers.

It would better serve the interests of justice for Ms Yates to vacate the public space while maintaining her office’s support for Ms Higgins during the second trial.

Mr Lehrmann’s fate needs to be left to that trial and a new jury.

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Scott Anthony10:30 pm 14 Nov 22

Absolutely pathetic for a lawyer and government office holder to be standing nodding at a statement that contravened a directive issued moments earlier by a judge…. totally pathetic level of bad judgement…..

Ms Higgins deserves support but not in the way delivered by the commissioner. If i am the victim of an alleged assault does that mean the commissioner will stand by my side during my court case? As a white male I suspect that I would get zero support from Ms Yates.

Also the foundation of our very good justice system states that you are a complainant until the case is proved whereupon you become a victim/survivor.

If the case is not proven then what happens – does Mr Lehrman become a victim of a false prosecution? will he get support from Ms Yates?

ChrisinTurner1:22 pm 14 Nov 22

I am not sure how qualified Ian is to make these comments. He is however putting his opinion against the AG and his legal team.

Capital Retro6:00 pm 14 Nov 22

Ian is making his opinion based on facts. That doesn’t require a “qualification”.

I think the “AG and his legal team” have been caught out badly on this.

ChrisinT. Surely you jest. The AG and his legal team from JaCS!!

While I agree with the view that support shouldn’t be limited to situations where guilt had been proven, it’s highly inappropriate for the Commissioner to be making public appearances, fronting the media with and personally escorting an alleged victim. I doubt any other alleged victim was the recipient of similar level support.

I was curious about the Commissioner herself being the support person. Is that a level of service all victims of crime can expect? Or just the high profile ones?

I must really get out more. Had no idea a ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner even existed. Did see her alongside
Ms Higgins but was unaware of her role.

However re her appearance alongside Ms Higgins.
This has been given the approval by our Attorney General, so that must make it kosher.
Am sure other jurisdictions would wish for such a hands on green A/G.

As a member of the public with no legal knowledge, I have been following this tragedy of “no winners”. I am unconvinced by Mr Bushnell’s stand. It seems to me that the accused has the power of the court and its judge to protect his rights. Surely the accuser should have proportionate power behind her as well.

How does the accused have the power of the court and the judge to protect his rights any more than the accuser?

It is a bad look for the commissioner to provide such public support for this case, when clearly nothing like this would happen for other cases.

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