Concern has been expressed by the ACT's Chief Police Officer that the fallout from the Lehrmann mistrial and board of inquiry controversy which followed may be a deterrent to other sexual assault victims to report, and has committed to further improve "the way police operate and conduct criminal investigations".
"I do not want the impact of this report to result in people not willing to come forward to police to report sexual assaults," Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
He also committed to working with the ACT government to "contribute to the complete government response, and following this, to implement the recommendations [of the review]".
The board of inquiry chaired by former Queensland judge Walter Sofronoff KC examined the handling of Bruce Lehrmann's rape trial, which was abandoned after juror misconduct in October 2022. Former federal political staffer Brittany Higgins had accused Mr Lehrmann of sexual assault, while he maintained his innocence.
"I am pleased [review] Chair Walter Sofronoff KC has recognised the professionalism and dedication of all ACT Policing officers involved in this investigation, particularly that they 'performed their duties in absolute good faith, with great determination although faced with obstacles and put together a sound case'," he said.
"I know, at every stage, our officers were wholly focused on comprehensively investigating this matter."
Police investigators largely were exonerated by the Sofronoff-chaired Board of Inquiry into the Criminal Justice System, although parts of their processes, such as the formal training and governance around the threshold to charge an offender with sexual assault, was seen as "deficient".
Investigators also erred in wrongfully disclosing information to the Lehrmann defence team, a mistake which ACT Policing described as of an "innocent" nature.
The inquiry has made 10 recommendations which ACT Attorney General Shane Rattenbury pledged would be completed before the next territory election in October 2024.
The recommendations included 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 ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, resigned in the wake of the inquiry.
Deputy Commissioner Gaughan said that "a guide to support how officers apply the threshold to charge a person with a criminal offence was being developed before the Board of Inquiry proceedings".
"We will finalise this guide in partnership with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions," he added.
He acknowledged the impact that the robust inquiry process "and ongoing public discussion", has had "on all people involved".
The role of the police investigation team faced fierce scrutiny during the inquiry and in their inquiry submission, ACT Policing accepted "that a serious error occurred when Ms Higgins' counselling notes were inadvertently disclosed to the defence".
ACT Policing apologised "unreservedly" to the victim, Ms Higgins, "for this significant error".
Deputy Commissioner Gaughan sought to reassure sexual assault victims that they would be "listened to, you will be treated with respect and you will be supported".
"Every complainant's concerns, needs and well-being will continue to be central focus in any police process or subsequent criminal justice proceeding," he said.
"I, along with every police officer, appreciate how the community conversation across Australia about sexual assault in recent years has been helpful to reflect cultural and societal changes.
"We've all seen how it has driven reform across all criminal justice agencies and this work remains ongoing."
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