ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates has been reappointed for a second five-year term with the ACT Human Rights Commission.
The announcement from Minister for Human Rights Tara Cheyne is a government vote of confidence in Ms Yates, who drew criticism from some quarters for her public support for former Liberal adviser Brittany Higgins during the trial of her then colleague Bruce Lehrmann for allegedly raping her at Parliament House in 2019.
It comes despite an ACT board of inquiry being announced to examine the conduct of police and prosecution in the case against Lehrmann, also looking at the appropriateness of Ms Yates supporting Ms Higgins during the trial.
Ms Cheyne said Ms Yates had been instrumental in driving reforms to sexual assault laws, improving supports for victim survivors and acting on the recommendations of the Projects Assisting Victims’ Experience and Recovery Review.
“I am pleased that Ms Yates has been reappointed to the role of ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner,” she said.
“Ms Yates is an experienced member of the Human Rights Commission.
“Her significant contributions to the community have been recognised with her nomination for 2023 ACT Australian of the Year.”
But Ms Yates’s prominence next to Ms Higgins throughout the 12-day trial before it was aborted raised eyebrows, with some commentators questioning whether it tainted the presumption of innocence.
Ms Yates vigorously defended her role, telling an Assembly annual reports hearing in November that “victim-survivors” of alleged crimes could also be supported throughout the court process.
She said the Victims of Crime Act defined a victim as someone who suffered harm because of an offence, and when the legislation was first introduced, it was intended to be “beneficial”.
“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.
“In practice, that narrow definition would limit the provision of victim support services, including court support services, to a very small proportion of Canberrans affected by crime. Such services would only be available to people at the tail end of the justice process.
“In my view, that’s not the kind of approach envisaged by the new Charter of Rights for Victims of Crime … which provides for victim-survivors to exercise rights throughout proceedings, including proceedings against an accused.”
Ms Yates confirmed she and her office could provide support to victims of crime even when the offender had yet to be charged.
This included sexual and family violence offences, of which few are reported to the police.
Shadow Attorney-General Peter Cain also raised the matter with Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury during hearings.
But Mr Rattenbury said it was not the intent of victim support in the Territory that no one could be supported before a guilty verdict was handed down.
“If we take that, nobody would get any support until after the court case had finished,” he said.
Ms Yates was first appointed to the role in 2018 and will continue for a new five-year term starting on 19 March, 2023.