A powerful victim’s lawyer who represented Brittany Higgins every day in court knew her boyfriend, David Sharaz, prior to the explosive rape allegations.
Heidi Yates, the ACT commissioner for victims of crime, made the revelation Thursday at a committee of inquiry investigating how the investigation and jury trial of Bruce Lehrmann was handled by prosecutors and police.
Ms Higgins alleged that Mr Lehrmann raped her in the House of Parliament in 2019. He has always maintained his innocence.
During his jury trial in the ACT Supreme Court in October, Ms. Yates was a fixture by Mrs. Higgins’ side – appear heavily in the news coverage of the case.
On Thursday, Ms Yates was questioned by counsel assisting the investigation, Erin Longbottom, about how she became involved in Ms Higgins’ case.
Ms Yates also described the poignant moment when she called an ambulance for Ms Higgins as she believed there was an imminent threat to her life following Lisa Wilkinson’s disastrous Logies speech.
ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates addressed the Commission of Inquiry on Thursday morning
Earlier on Thursday, Ms Yates agreed with Ms Longbottom’s suggestion that she first learned about the rape allegations on January 30, 2021, after speaking at a community event.
Another speaker approached her and said he knew a woman who would file a sexual assault complaint that was “likely to attract media attention,” and asked her for a statement of support.
Ms Yates agreed but said she would not meet Ms Higgins until months later in April 2021.
Ms Longbottom said: ‘In April Ms Higgins went public about her sexual assault allegation and an interview was aired on that year’s The Project, and on April 26 you received an email from Ms Higgins’ partner [David Sharaz].’
Mrs Yates replied ‘Yes’.
Mrs. Longbottom continued, “Did you know Mr. Sharaz from his time as a local news journalist in Canberra?”
Mrs. Yates replied, “Vague, yes.”
The inquiry revealed that Ms Higgins’s current fiancé, David Sharaz, knew Ms Yates ‘vaguely’ from his days as a journalist in Canberra.
The victim’s lawyer then agreed that she had spoken to Mr Sharaz on the phone during which time he explained that Ms Higgins was seeking support in connection with an upcoming meeting with then Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Mrs Yates had first met Mrs Higgins on April 27, three days prior to meeting Mr Morrison.
“Ms. Higgins has asked you for information about systemic issues facing victims of sexual assault,” Ms. Longbottom asked.
Ms Yates recalled that Ms Higgins sought advice on systemic issues related to sexual assault complaints, rather than advice on her own alleged assault.
“She talked about the issues she wanted to talk about, such as access and better avenues for victims to report, and timely therapeutic support… so we gave her information on those things,” Ms Yates said.
Ms Yates then recalled being invited to attend two meetings with Ms Higgins on 30 April – one with Mr Morrison and another with former opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek.
Later on Thursday, Ms Yates told the inquiry that she had permission from Ms Higgins to talk about personal matters – including times when her mental health was deteriorating.
Ms Yates was asked about her decision to walk to court with Ms Higgins every day – as her title of ‘victims of crime commissioner’ could imply that Mr Lehrmann was guilty.
Ms Longbottom pointed to criticism of Ms Yates regarding her being the ‘public face’ of support for Ms Higgins – choosing to walk into court next to her every day.
Ms Yates said that criticism ’causes me great concern’ but told the inquiry there was a general ‘misunderstanding’ about what her role actually was.
Under human rights law in the ACT, the Commissioner for Victims of Crime has the jurisdiction to support an alleged victim – whether or not there is a conviction against the defendant.
Brittany Higgins accused Bruce Lehrmann (pictured) of raping her in 2019. He denies the allegations
She said: ‘The ACT government has empowered my office to provide care – when that is known and understood, together we can improve the community’s belief in the justice system, and that each of us has a different role’.
Ms Yates then told the inquiry that on the first day of the trial, Ms Higgins decided to enter the court in full view of cameras and reporters, even though she was presented with a range of alternatives.
“Ms. Higgins was entitled to support from our office, and she asked me to support her, and it wasn’t until the day the trial began that she decided whether she would choose to participate publicly, or take the other options available to her,” she recalled.
When asked if it was inappropriate for her to appear in public with Mrs. Higgins, and if her presence at Mrs. Higgins’ side caused confusion, Mrs. Yates said she did not think so.
She added that no other government body, including the police and the DPP, suggested there was a problem with her presence at Ms Higgins’ side.
Ms Yates further stated that she would have listened to any advice stating her presence was inappropriate and would have taken action, but pointed out that the criticism largely came after the trial failed.
She was asked if, in retrospect, she would still show public support for Ms. Higgins. Ms Yates said it was hard to know but that she would consider this situation if another alleged victim asked for the same kind of help.
Walter Sofronoff, who is leading the investigation, suggested that the title “victims of crime commissioner” would strip Lehrmann’s human right to the presumption of innocence.
Mr Sofronoff suggested that a different title, such as ‘complainants’ commissioner’, might be more appropriate.
The hearing continues.