27 December 2022

Inquiry into the Lehrmann trial will cause more pain but can't be avoided

| Ross Solly

The role of Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates (right) during the Lehrmann trial will be a focus of the board of inquiry. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Not that they weren’t expecting it, but the announcement there will be an inquiry into the conduct of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions and ACT Policing over the handling of the Bruce Lehrmann prosecution would have dulled the festive cheer in a few Canberra households.

The pressure being applied to the ACT Government to launch an investigation into the tit-for-tat allegations surrounding the Lehrmann/Higgins case was enormous.

As I have written in this place previously, there are no winners and a lot of losers from the abandoned trial, and the list of losers continues to grow.

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DPP Shane Drumgold claimed he felt pressured by police not to pursue the allegations against Lehrmann. This is so serious that it has to be investigated.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury did what they had to do: announce a board of inquiry to investigate the conduct of the DPP and ACT police, which Mr Barr described as the most “appropriate response”.

The inquiry will be able to hold public and private hearings and will examine the appropriateness of the ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner aligning herself with the complainant and also how the ACT deals with juror misconduct.

A board of inquiry in the ACT has the same powers as a royal commission, meaning it can issue search warrants, order witnesses to attend and produce documents. All three parties – the DPP, the police and the Victims of Crime Commissioner – have already indicated they will cooperate with the inquiry.

Importantly, Mr Rattenbury emphasised the board of inquiry would not be about “revisiting the trial”, which will no doubt disappoint many of those on both sides of the fence who have been feeling particularly aggrieved about the entire case.

It’s a pity the inquiry will not be able to look in any great depth into the conduct of the media before, during and after the trial. There may be some overlap, but you can expect it will mostly be peripheral to the main event.

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How much did the media pressure influence the decisions taken by the DPP and ACT Policing? If you remember back, the clamour surrounding this case was deafening. It would be hard to believe both the DPP and the police would have been able to avoid the noise.

But did it influence any of the decisions they made? We might get some answers during the inquiry.

At the very least, let’s hope we get some recommendations about how the media should behave in future when confronted by allegations as serious as this.

Even this week, there are some in the media, and a lot of people on social media, who are assuming the guilt or the innocence of political staffer Bruce Lehrmann, who was accused of raping Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.

Mr Lehrmann has denied the rape occurred and the trial was abandoned in October when it was discovered a juror had brought outside documents into the jury room. A planned retrial was called off because of concerns about Ms Higgins’ health.

Will the board of inquiry end careers? Potentially. The two leading players, the DPP and the police, are adamant that the other party was in the wrong. It’s going to make for a fascinating but potentially very damaging start to 2023.

And let’s not forget, at the heart of this are two people who are once again going to find themselves on TV bulletins and on the front page of the newspapers on a daily basis.

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