9 August 2023

Victims of alleged sexual violence encouraged to come forward despite publicity around Sofronoff Report

| Claire Fenwicke
ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan

ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan didn’t want the impact of the Sofronoff Report to discourage people from reporting instances of sexual assault. Photo: Michael Weaver.

ACT Policing’s Chief Police Officer has stressed victims of alleged sexual assault and violence will be listened to, treated with respect and supported if they choose to report a crime.

CPO Neil Gaughan issued a statement in response to the Sofronoff Report from the Board of Inquiry into the ACT’s criminal justice system, which was launched after correspondence from DPP Shane Drumgold SC to himself was obtained by the media.

In the report, which has now been fully released by the ACT Government, Mr Sofronoff noted there was an “inconsistency” in how officers assessed evidence collected during an investigation in order to decide if they could proceed to charges.

He found the AFP/ACT Policing did not have a policy or guideline about the correct threshold to charge and that training to officers of the Sexual and Child Abuse Team (SOCIT) was “deficient” in relation to this threshold and in relation to “trauma-informed and victim-centric considerations” relevant to an objective assessment of evidence obtained during a sexual assault investigation.

“The investigators formed the unwarranted belief that the evidence was not sufficient to charge [Bruce] Lehrmann,” Mr Sofronoff stated.

“The direction and pace of the investigation was driven by the investigators’ concerns regarding the credibility of Ms Higgins.

“The investigation did not interrogate the veracity of Mr Lehrmann’s statements with the same intensity as the pursuit of inquiries aimed at Ms Higgins’ credibility concerns.”

The case against Mr Lehrmann ended with a mistrial and no findings have been made against him. Mr Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence.

Mr Sofronoff also found officers had “performed their duties in absolute good faith, with great determination although faced with obstacles and put together a sound case.”

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In its response to Mr Sofronoff, ACT Policing accepted “legitimate criticisms” in aspects of its conduct during the investigation, including that formal training and governance around the threshold to charge was “deficient” and that Ms Higgins’ counselling notes should never have been disclosed to Mr Lehrmann’s defence counsel.

“ACT Policing takes this opportunity to apologise to Ms Higgins unreservedly for this significant error,” it submitted.

Recommendations from the report included training officers on the adjudication process and its purpose, creating a more consistent approach to the compiling of briefs of evidence, changing the template used to prepare disclosure certificates and training officers in its use, and defining the threshold to charge.

Since the release of the Sofronoff Report, CPO Gaughan said a guide about the threshold to charge was being developed and would be finalised in partnership with the Office of the DPP.

He also outlined SOCIT staffing had been increased and “enhanced training” for officers conducting sexual violence-related investigations had started this year.

“This training was developed with leading experts across forensics, psychology and criminology. Our focus is to strengthen our trauma-centric, victim-informed specialist approach to better support complainants,” CPO Gaughan said.

“Every investigation presents individual challenges and sexual assault investigations can be complex. This investigation was no exception.”

“I, along with every police officer, appreciate how the community conversation across Australia about sexual assault in recent years has been helpful to reflect cultural and societal changes. We’ve all seen how it has driven reform across all criminal justice agencies and this work remains ongoing.”

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One person who appears to have been vindicated throughout this process is the ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates.

Ms Yates was interrogated over her decision to publicly accompany Ms Higgins to court during the trial and whether it impacted on Mr Lehrmann’s right to a presumption of innocence.

Mr Sofronoff found she was subjected to a “degree of unjustified public criticism because of a general lack of understanding” about what her requirements were under the Victims of Crime Act 1994.

The ACT Human Rights Commission issued a statement saying it welcomed the finding that Ms Yates had acted in accordance with her statutory role.

“The VOCC and Victim Support ACT have statutory responsibilities to provide support, advocacy and financial assistance to victims of crime in the Territory, in recognition of that fact that victim-survivor engagement with the justice system can be a complex, protracted and harrowing experience,” it stated.

“We also assist victims whose matters do not come before the justice system – for example, where no charges are laid, or when an alleged offender is deceased, cannot be identified, or is not criminally responsible due to age or mental impairment.”

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Mr Sofronoff also found the letter that kicked off this entire inquiry was leaked by Mr Drumgold himself.

His letter resulted in the police handling of the Lehrmann case being referred to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) in November 2022.

ACLEI was absorbed into the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NCCA) as of 1 July 2023.

An NCAA spokesperson confirmed the commission could continue investigations that had been started but not completed by ACLEI, including this matter.

“The commission will give further consideration to whether and if so how to progress this matter when it has reviewed the report of the Board of Inquiry chaired by Mr Sofronoff KC,” they said.

People impacted by crime can contact the VOCC and Victim Support ACT on 6205 2066 or via VictimSupportIntake@act.gov.au.

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