15 May 2024

Five police officers sue for $1.4 million, claim they were defamed by Shane Drumgold

| Albert McKnight
Shane Drumgold in sunglasses walking to court

Former ACT DPP Shane Drumgold SC (right) arriving at the Board of Inquiry in May 2023. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Five police officers are suing the ACT Government for about $1.4 million over claims the Territory’s former top prosecutor defamed them by alleging they behaved “disgracefully” during the investigation into Bruce Lehrmann.

On Wednesday (15 May), the Federal Court released the statement of claim filed by the five Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers against the government and former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Shane Drumgold SC.

The statement says that between February 2021 and October 2022, the officers investigated the allegation that Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins at Parliament House.

Lehrmann was charged, pleaded not guilty and faced trial, but this ended in a mistrial due to juror misconduct in October 2022 before the charge against him was dropped.

On 1 November 2022, Mr Drumgold sent a letter to then-ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan, in which he wrote of “what I perceive as some quite clear investigator interference in the criminal justice process” of the case.

The officers claim this letter defamed them in several ways. They allege Mr Drumgold suggested they had “acted disgracefully” by trying to pressure him not to charge Lehrmann, that they had “aligned” themselves with the latter’s interests and had inappropriately assisted his defence team during the trial.

Also, the officers claim Mr Drumgold suggested they had bullied Ms Higgins.

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The officers argue that the prosecutor should have known these imputations were false and unsupported by evidence, as well as that sending the letter would mean it was seen by others in the AFP and government.

Also, the officers claim in December 2022, Mr Drumgold spoke to The Guardian journalist Christopher Knaus and told him he had written to Mr Gaughan.

On 5 December 2022, Mr Knaus made a Freedom of Information request regarding a complaint made by the DPP about police, then Mr Drumgold allegedly sent him the letter on 7 December in response to that request.

The officers claim the prosecutor was legally obliged to consult with them and the AFP before sending the letter to the journalist, which he hadn’t done.

Mr Knaus then used the letter as the basis for an article, which other media outlets also picked up.

Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann leaving the ACT Supreme Court during his trial. Photos: Albert McKnight.

The letter was also used as a reason why the ACT Government established the Board of Inquiry in 2023, which the officers say drew more public attention to the imputations it contained.

The officers involved in the case, who were apparently named in the letter, are Detective Inspector Marcus Boorman, Deputy Chief Police Officer Michael Chew, Detective Superintendent Scott Moller, Detective Leading Senior Constable Trent Madders and Senior Constable Emma Frizzell.

They want the court to declare that the letter Mr Drumgold sent to Mr Gaughan and Mr Knaus was defamatory to them and that Mr Drumgold’s decision to release the letter to the journalist was “invalid or unlawful”.

As a result of the letter’s publication, the officers claim they suffered serious harm to their personal and professional reputations, they were “brought into public disrepute, odium, ridicule and contempt”, and that their honour and self-respect were damaged in the AFP.

The officers want a combined total of $1.415 million in damages. The matter will return to court at a date to be set.

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“The Territory acknowledges that proceedings have been commenced in the Federal Court by members of the AFP in respect of what they allege to be defamatory statements by the former Director of Public Prosecutions,” an ACT Government spokesperson said.

“It would not be appropriate for the Territory to comment on those proceedings or how it intends to respond.”

Mr Drumgold resigned as DPP after the findings in the Board of Inquiry report made his position untenable.

He then launched his own legal proceedings in the ACT Supreme Court, with a judge finding inquiry chair Walter Sofronoff KC’s private communications with The Australian journalist Janet Albrechtsen gave rise to apprehended bias against him.

However, Mr Drumgold’s position would still have been considered untenable by the ACT Government.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, a Federal Court judge found that on the balance of probabilities, it was likely Ms Higgins was raped at Parliament House. Lehrmann has always denied the allegations.

Also, earlier this week, it was announced that the ACT Integrity Commission would launch a full investigation into how Mr Sofronoff had given his report to journalists before handing it to Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

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