There is another twist in the Bruce Lehrmann saga. Opening statements were made on Monday in an investigation into Lehrmann’s prosecution over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.
Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence by pleading not guilty to charges of sexual intercourse without consent.
The inquiry will examine the handling of the case by the Australian Capital Territory authorities. It starts on May 1 with hearing evidence.
The first trial was halted by the judge in October 2022 due to juror misconduct. A second trial fell through due to prosecutors’ fears for Higgins’ mental health.
This research is independent of the ongoing defamation cases Lehrmann is suing against a range of media outlets.
Also on Monday, trial judge and ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum announced she would maintain a suppression order that keeps secret some elements of the case involving Higgins. McCallum said: “I have no doubt that any further aggravation of media exposure to her will put her life at risk”.
Read more: Lehrmann retrial halted due to ‘considerable and unacceptable risk’ to Brittany Higgins’ life
It has been revealed that in November 2022 the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shane Drumgold, concerns expressed about the actions of the police and their interference in his handling of the prosecution.
The Bureau of the DPP is an independent legal authority established by Parliament. It prosecutes criminal cases in the ACT and operates free of government influence. That is, free from parliament and the executive, including police ministers and police commissioners.
In other words, the DPP must remain above politics and fully adhere to legal principles and agreed prosecution guidelines.
The letter emerged following a freedom of information request from The Guardian. In there, Drumgold supposedly there was “improper interference” by the police in the case, namely that he had been pressured not to pursue the prosecution.
The inquiry will examine Drumgold’s allegations. It will try to determine if there are any issues that are foreign to the trial and the attempted retrial, that interfered with the fairness of the trial or did not respect the rights of those involved.
Former Queensland Solicitor General Walter Sofronoff has been appointed to lead the investigation. He said he will report to the government by the end of June.
The task before us
Sofronoff has quite a task ahead of him. In this mix come a number of players, themes and factual disagreements.
For starters, there is the essential pillar of prosecution independence that prevents the current government (and their police) from deciding who should be prosecuted and under what circumstances. Section 20 of the Director of Public Prosecutions Act 1990 (ACT) allows the Attorney General to “give instructions or issue directives” to the DPP, but they must be “of a general nature and not refer to any specific case”. The decision whether or not to prosecute lies with the DPP.
The ACT’s prosecution policy will also be examined. That is, the discretionary guidance given by law to the DPP regarding their choice to prosecute.
The role of Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates throughout the episode will likely be investigated. The role of this commissioner is to act as a victim advocate, and Yates was a prominent supporter of Higgins, appearing at numerous court hearings. next to her.
More than one politician was involved in the case, albeit with obvious reluctance. Celebrities in the media weighed in. Criminologists pointed to the very low number of guilty verdicts in prosecutions for alleged sexual improprieties.
Read more: In the age of social media, can juries still do justice to high-profile cases?
All of these players can be scrutinized by Sofronoff as he tries to determine how these various factors may have influenced the interactions between the police and the DPP.
Sofronoff probably wants to know more about being the police disclosed evidence to Lehrmann’s lawyers, which contain sensitive information, such as Higgins’ advisory notes. This happened before Lehrmann had entered a plea.
He may want to investigate the appropriateness of what appears to be close contact during the trial between the investigating officers and Lehrmann’s legal team. Sofronoff will be assisted by his reference to over 140,000 pages of documentation.
Rarely has there been such a ‘post-event’ investigation into how a prosecution has been conducted. In many ways, the process is being heard again.