21 December 2022

Questions raised over scope of board of inquiry into Lehrmann trial

| Claire Fenwicke

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the board of inquiry into the Lehrmann case was expected to be completed by 30 June 2023. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

The role the ACT Government and the Attorney-General played in the handling of R v Lehrmann could be examined as part of a board of inquiry announced earlier today (21 December).

Both the Canberra Liberals and police union have pointed out the government’s announcement didn’t include alleged actions by the current government as part of the “specific elements” of the inquiry.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee said she had been approached by a number of people concerned about Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury’s possible involvement.

“We know that there have been some serious concerns raised by police, by the legal profession and the broader public about the way the proposed reforms to the Evidence Act have come about, and that’s clearly not within what the government has put forward as part of the terms of reference,” she said.

“It is concerning that the ACT Government’s press release talked about several issues but did not mention the very, very serious allegation of political interference that has been raised.

“The Chief Minister must ensure the public, including the legal profession, that he is taking this matter very seriously, including the concerns that have been raised about the potential issues surrounding the Attorney-General’s involvement in this matter.”

Elizabeth Lee at a press conference

Canberra Liberals Leader Elizabeth Lee said the Attorney-General’s alleged involvement in the Lehrmann case also needed to be examined. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

She said the allegations made by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) about the conduct of ACT Policing officers were “alarming” and questioned why Mr Rattenbury attempted to “brush off” the concerns as “professional differences”.

“When you have the DPP that is making serious allegations to police about political interference, about bullying and about leaking, that is not just ‘professional difference’,” Ms Lee said.

“We’re talking about serious, serious allegations, and this would have the potential to significantly erode public confidence and trust in our legal system and in our criminal justice system.

“If that trust is broken, that is going to have some serious ramifications for our entire criminal justice system.”

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The Australian Federal Police Association welcomed the fact the board of inquiry meant the conduct of the DPP and Victims of Crime Commissioner would be examined alongside that of ACT Policing.

AFPA pesident Alex Caruana said any possible influence by Mr Rattenbury or his office needed to be scrutinised under the terms of reference, along with the “appropriateness” of DPP Shane Drumgold’s accusations.

“The inquiry should examine whether Mr Drumgold’s explosive public statements were befitting of the ACT’s top prosecutor,” he said.

“The national media frenzy caused by these claims has eroded the community’s faith in its institutions. Several other more suitable mechanisms were available for Mr Drumgold to air his grievances.”

Mr Drumgold’s letter to the ACT Policing Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan was made public under Freedom of Information laws after The Guardian used the legislation to gain access.

While the board of inquiry can only hold private hearings if they pass a public interest test, Mr Caruana said the privacy of those involved in the investigation was “paramount”.

“This includes the parties involved in R v Lehrmann, ACT Policing members, and employees of the DPP and Victim Support ACT,” he said.

“To protect the mental health of all involved, public hearings should only be conducted in exceptional circumstances. The AFPA will be here to help our members every step of the way.”

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The terms of reference are yet to be established, but the ACT Government said it was looking nationally for a legal professional to lead it up.

The position was expected to be confirmed next month.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said it was expected the report would be finalised by 30 June 2023.

“If there are any elements of the report that cannot be made public, [under the Inquiries Act] I need to explain why in a statement to the ACT Parliament,” he said.

It’s expected the board of inquiry will begin as soon as possible in the New Year.

Mr Rattenbury explained the government has been seeking legal advice over the past week to get the wheels turning before the Christmas shutdown.

“This has been very stressful, I think, for many parties involved,” he said.

“If this is left, it sits there as an open matter which can also be very stressful in its own right, so there’s probably no good time to get on with this, but it needs to be done, and we want to move forward and resolve it in a timely way.”

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Both Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann’s representatives have been notified the inquiry was being established, along with the Commonwealth, but at this stage, it’s unclear whether they could be called up to give evidence.

A legal framework for juror misconduct will also be examined after the Lehrmann trial was discontinued due to a juror bringing unauthorised material into the deliberation room.

However, Mr Rattenbury said it wasn’t appropriate to examine the entire legal system, which some advocates have been calling for for months.

“This is a matter about a very specific case and very specific allegations which have been raised in relation to the conduct of that matter,” he said.

“The government is undertaking a number of investigations and considerations in relation to dangerous driving, which has been a particular context for those calls.

“Beyond that, we don’t see a need for a wholesale review of the justice system.”

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