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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Jasper Lindell

ACT govt supports all recommendations from board of inquiry

ACT Attorney General Shane Rattenbury, left, and Chief Minister Andrew Barr, pictured in January 2023. Picture by Elesa Kurtz

The ACT government has agreed - or agreed in principle - with the 10 recommendations made by a board of inquiry that examined the handling of the Parliament House rape trial.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the government maintained confidence in the findings despite being "extremely disappointed" by the chairman's decision to provide advanced copies of the report to the media.

"On the release of this report and the government response, we acknowledge the distress caused to individuals affected throughout the matter," the pair said.

Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury said a key finding of the board of inquiry was the decision to prosecute Bruce Lehrmann over the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins was appropriate. Mr Lehrmann has maintained his innocence.

The board of inquiry chairman, Walter Sofronoff KC, had provided copies to two media organisations, in one case before the report was handed to Mr Barr, the government said.

Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury issued a joint statement on Monday afternoon to say they were confident in the recommendations of the report and that the government's focus remained on implementation.

The recommendations include a policy for ACT Policing to define the threshold at which a person can be charged for a crime, changes to the Victims of Crime Act 1994, along with changes to governance material covering how counselling notes must be stored with ACT Policing and the brief adjudication process.

The government agreed in principle to a recommendation that ACT Policing devise a protocol that affirmed "the desirability of police witnesses being available to legal representative for a defendant".

The government noted the protocol might have operational implications for police, which meant it required further consideration.

The government also agreed in principle to a recommendation the ACT pass laws to "codify the scope and content of the obligation of disclosure owed by the prosecution in criminal proceedings", saying it would work with stakeholders to examine the issues.

Mr Rattenbury said the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and ACT Policing would take responsibility for a number of recommendations concerning them and that work would be monitored by the government.

"The report did not uncover fundamental or grievous problems with the justice system here in the territory," Mr Rattenbury said.

"It found instances of poor individual behaviour and poor choices compounded by a heightened political and media environment. The board of inquiry report discussed the way the heightened media and political attention made the day-to-day business of justice agencies more challenging."

Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury also confirmed the government was seeking advice on whether Mr Sofronoff decision to prematurely release the report amounted to a breach of the Inquiries Act 1991 and whether further action would need to be taken.

The maximum penalty for breaching the act's disclosure rules, which govern the release by board members and staff of "information acquired ... under or for this Act", is an $8000 fine or a six-month jail term. The Canberra Times does not suggest Mr Sofronoff's actions constitute a breach of the law.

Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury said the government would also consider strengthening the non-disclosure provisions of the Inquiries Act.

"The intent of any changes will be to provide the ACT government and the Canberra community with assurance that the unapproved release that occurred on this occasion will not occur for any inquiry that may be commissioned in the future," the pair said.

Mr Sofronoff's letter to the ACT government explaining his decision for releasing the report to two media outlets was now subject of a freedom-of-information process, the pair said.

Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury said the government had decided to release the report in full, including its appendices which contained proposed adverse comments against named individuals who had requested those appendices not be released.

"In deciding to release the full report and appendices, it is important to observe that in many instances, the board of inquiry chose not to include proposed adverse comments in the final report after receiving submissions in response from those named. There is no basis to draw inferences from those proposed adverse comments contained in the appendices," the pair said.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee said the handling of the entire process by Mr Barr and Mr Rattenbury had been farcical.

"There is no reasonable justification for how long it has taken for the Labor-Greens government to release the board of inquiry report to the public," Ms Lee said.

"The lack of leadership from the Chief Minister and Attorney-General over the last week, along with the findings in the report regarding the conduct of the Director of Public Prosecutions have no doubt undermined the community's faith in the ACT judicial system."

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