Pre-eminent Queensland lawyer and jurist Walter Sofronoff KC has been tasked with heading an inquiry into the criminal investigation and prosecution of a former Liberal Party staffer, over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in the Australian capital in 2019.
Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced yesterday that Mr Sofronoff – who retired as Queensland Court of Appeal President in May last year – had been appointed Chair of a board of inquiry into the conduct of criminal justice agencies involved in the case against Bruce Lehrmann.
Mr Lehrmann, 27, has consistently maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse with Ms Higgins without her consent in a Government Minister’s office at Parliament House, Canberra, on 23 March 2019.
After a 12-day ACT Supreme Court trial and five days of deliberation, the jury was discharged on 27 October last year when it was disclosed that a member of the panel had independently read an academic research on sexual assault during proceedings.
The trial was aborted, with the judge ordering the case be listed for retrial.
However, in early December the ACT’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, said the case against Mr Lehrmann would be abandoned – saying it was no longer in the public interest because of the risk to Ms Higgins’ health and wellbeing.
During a media conference announcing his decision, Mr Drumgold said: “I’ve recently received really compelling evidence from medical experts that the ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk for the life of the complainant.
“The evidence makes it clear that this is not limited to the harm of giving evidence in a witness box [and] rather applies whether or not the complainant is required to enter a witness box during a retrial.”
In the wake of the high-profile case, which garnered worldwide media attention, involved numerous controversial incidents and ultimately resulted in the abandonment of the Crown case, the ACT Government announced it would conduct an independent inquiry into the matter.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, in announcing Mr Sofronoff’s appointment yesterday, provided the reasons for conducting an inquiry and its terms of reference.
“The allegations and complaints made against our criminal justice agencies are serious,” Mr Barr said. “Mr Sofronoff is a highly regarded legal expert with experience leading sensitive inquiries throughout his career. He was also Queensland’s Solicitor-General for almost 10 years.
“I am confident that Mr Sofronoff will deliver a thorough and respectful independent inquiry.”
He said the inquiry terms of reference had been finalised, and included:
- whether any police officers, the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Victims of Crime Commissioner failed to act in accordance with their duties or acted in breach of their duties in their conduct during the investigation of the case
- the circumstances around, and decisions which led to the public release of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions’ letter to the Chief Police Officer of ACT Policing, and
- any matter reasonably incidental to any of the above matters.
“Throughout the inquiry, the Board can hold public or private hearings, subpoena documents and witnesses and issue search warrants,” Mr Barr said.
Mr Sofronoff has been given until 30 June 2023 to deliver his report to the Chief Minister.
ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the inquiry was needed to ensure the territory’s framework for progressing criminal investigations and prosecutions was robust, fair and respected the rights of all involved.
“It is important to remember that this will not be a retrial of the case, it will focus on whether the criminal justice officials involved performed their duties with appropriate rigour, impartiality, and independence,” he said.
See the terms of reference.