The Board of Inquiry into the criminal justice system’s handling of the Bruce Lehrmann case has passed on its findings to the ACT Government on Monday (31 July), but the report will be put through a “proper Cabinet process” before it is released.
Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. He was accused of raping Brittany Higgins in Parliament House on 23 March 2019 when they both worked as staffers for former Coalition minister Linda Reynolds. The case was eventually dropped following a mistrial. No findings have been made against Mr Lehrmann and he has maintained his innocence.
The inquiry into the Territory’s criminal justice system and its handling of the Lehrmann trial was launched after a letter from ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC to ACT Policing Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan was released under Freedom of Information legislation. In the letter and in inquiry hearings, Mr Drumgold spoke of a lack of objectivity among ACT Policing officers involved in the Lehrmann matter and potential “political interference” at play during the trial.
Inquiry chair Walter Sofronoff KC also heard from Mr Lehrmann’s defence counsel Steven Whybrow SC and his former barrister John Korn, several senior police officers involved in the matter, the solicitor for Network Ten, and ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates. Statements were also tendered from a number of other witnesses, including Senator Reynolds and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.
The evidence tendered to the inquiry explored the conduct of the prosecution, the defence, ACT Policing and the Victims of Crime Commission in the context of the trial, as well as the extent of the breakdown in the professional relationship between the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and ACT Policing officers involved in the Lehrmann case over the course of the matter.
In the wake of the inquiry, Mr Drumgold announced he would be taking a period of temporary leave from his position, which has been extended until the end of August.
The executive director of the Board of Inquiry confirmed Mr Sofronoff delivered the report to ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr on Monday afternoon.
A spokesperson for Mr Barr said the report was expected to be tabled during the next parliamentary sittings, which are due to take place from 29-31 August.
“The ACT Government will consider the report through a proper Cabinet process. This will take 3-4 weeks. The Legislative Assembly will be updated during the scheduled sittings in late August,” they said.
“Subject to the contents of the report, and any legal implications, the Chief Minister currently intends to table all, or part, of the report during the August parliamentary sitting of the ACT Legislative Assembly.
“Again, subject to the recommendations of the report, the Government may provide an interim response to some, or all, of the recommendations when the report is tabled in the Legislative Assembly. Subject to the recommendations, a final Government response may take several months.”
Given the circumstances of the case and the political and media interest, the Lehrmann matter has attracted intense public attention and continues to do so, with a number of the witnesses commenting on the unique and challenging nature of the trial.
During hearings, Mr Sofronoff said: “This is a trial that’s coming up that has been covered more intensely than anything since the Lindy Chamberlain case.”
In light of this intense interest, there have been some calls for the ACT Government to release the report sooner.
“This has been one of the most important inquiries in the history of the ACT. It goes right to the core of our justice system,” Canberra Liberals Acting Leader Jeremy Hanson said, arguing that Mr Barr should release the report immediately and in full.
“The public rightly expects this inquiry to be conducted without prejudice and released without interference.”
Mr Hanson said the unredacted release of the report’s unredacted findings needed to happen to “restore faith” in the ACT justice system and its impartiality and openness.
“The inquiry was called for under accusations of political interference, and the hearings appeared to raise very serious questions. For Mr Barr to now interfere with the release of the report is outrageous,” he said.