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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Christopher Knaus

Lehrmann case shouldn’t shake faith in justice system, police union says

Bruce Lehrmann outside a Canberra tribunal in May
The Australian Federal Police Association says the case of Bruce Lehrmann, pictured, is unique and the justice system ‘handles cases very well as a general rule’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The police union says the Bruce Lehrmann case was “like no other” and shouldn’t deter complainants from coming forward or having faith in the justice system.

The fallout from the Sofronoff inquiry report continued on Tuesday, after the ACT government’s extraordinary criticisms of inquiry head Walter Sofronoff KC over the premature leaking of the report to journalists.

The Australian Federal Police Association said in a statement that the contents of the report and the government’s response were a “credit to the inquiry and how it was managed before the current situation regarding the report’s release”.

The association president, Alex Caruana, said the recommendations it made were well-considered and urged Canberrans to retain faith in the justice system, which he said “handles cases very well as a general rule”.

“The attorney general [Shane Rattenbury] is 100% correct,” he said. “This case was like no other, and the community should not be discouraged from coming forward. Don’t let one case stop you from reporting a criminal matter.”

The inquiry findings were that there was enough evidence to charge Lehrmann and bring the prosecution, though that is not indicative of his guilt or innocence. Lehrmann has denied the allegation that he raped Higgins, pleading not guilty at trial. The first trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and a planned re-trial was abandoned due to fears about Higgins’ mental health.

The report was damning of the director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, finding he misled a court, attempted to withhold material from the defence and lost objectivity.

It also found police made serious errors, including sending Brittany Higgins’ counselling notes to Lehrmann’s defence, showing her CCTV footage in a fashion that could have coloured her evidence and conducting a second recorded interview with her. It found police misunderstood the threshold for when they should charge an individual with sexual assault and were mistaken in their belief that there was insufficient evidence in the Lehrmann case.

Despite the mistakes, the inquiry found investigators consistently acted in good faith and conducted a thorough investigation.

The report also found that the deterioration in the relationship between police and prosecutors was caused by wrong assumptions and misplaced suspicion. Drumgold wrongly believed police were trying to sabotage the case because of their reluctance to charge, Sofronoff found, and police wrongly believed Drumgold was casting aspersions on the integrity of investigators when he queried missing CCTV vision.

By the time the trial arrived, police and prosecutors were at “polar ends of an antagonistic relationship”, the inquiry found, and Drumgold began to see malignancy in benign interactions between police and the defence.

The ACT Bar Association said on Tuesday that it “notes with grave concern” the findings about Drumgold’s conduct. It said Drumgold’s resignation meant he will no longer be able to practise as a barrister and that any new application would “necessitate consideration of the findings contained in the Sofronoff Report”.

“Any application by Mr Drumgold for a new or unrestricted practising certificate will require the approval of the ACT Bar Council and will necessitate consideration of the findings contained in the Sofronoff Report,” the association president, Marcus Hassall, said. “The Bar Council understands that Mr Drumgold will not be returning to work with the ACT DPP prior to his resignation taking effect.”

Drumgold acknowledged he made mistakes but disputed many of the findings of the Sofronoff report and said he had not engaged in deliberate or underhanded conduct, or that he was dishonest.

“The findings relating to my forensic trial decisions are difficult to reconcile with those decisions having been made in the context of a robust adversarial process, with a strong and experienced defence team and an eminently qualified judge who presided over the trial,” he said. “It is difficult to reconcile the findings with trial judge’s expression of gratitude at the end of the case, for the exemplary way all counsel conducted the trial.”

The circumstances around the release of the report caused a furious response from the ACT government on Monday.

The chief minister, Andrew Barr, accused Sofronoff of breaching his faith by leaking an advance copy of the report to two journalists, one of whom received it prior to Barr getting a copy.

In a fiery press conference, Barr said the handling of the report’s release left “significant” questions “in the minds of many people”.

“This should have drawn a line under this matter,” he said. “Unfortunately, whilst the recommendations, I believe, are sound and we have accepted them, the whole process – the leaking, the engagement with journalists on the way through – leaves, in the minds of many people, questions.”

Despite the criticism, Rattenbury said the case was unique and that Canberrans could continue to have confidence in the system.

“The recommendations contained in the report offer a pathway forward for the ACT criminal justice system and will further strengthen community confidence in the institutions that support a fair and just system for Canberrans.”

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