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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Christopher Knaus

The Sofronoff inquiry was meant to restore faith in the justice system. It has done anything but

Walter Sofronoff
Walter Sofronoff led an inquiry into the handling of the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann. Photograph: Jono Searle/AAP

The Sofronoff report was supposed to bring finality.

It was to give some semblance of closure to a saga that has dragged on and on, plumbing new depths in each ghastly iteration.

Before the dust settled on an extraordinary 40-minute press conference on Monday, it was clear it would do anything but.

Instead, the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, and the attorney general, Shane Rattenbury, unloaded both barrels on its author, Walter Sofronoff KC, the former Queensland judge who presided over the inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann.

The pair had hoped Sofronoff’s report would restore faith in the justice system, eroded badly by allegations and counter-allegations between the police and prosecutors responsible for handling Brittany Higgins’ allegations of rape.

Now the man chosen to lead this vital exercise may, in Barr’s words, have breached the law and face further investigation.

The public, meanwhile, is asked to engage in an extreme form of cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, the government asks us to have faith in Sofronoff’s recommendations and their ability to address the gaping holes in the ACT’s justice system.

On the other, it tells us to be deeply concerned at Sofronoff’s conduct while leading the inquiry. That is, his decision to give selected journalists regular briefings of the inquiry’s direction and advance copies of his final report, which Barr says interfered with procedural fairness.

We are asked to simultaneously believe that the serious problems exposed by the Lehrmann case – the failures of director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, and the flawed handling of sexual assault cases by police – can be remedied by a report whose author may be the subject of an investigation by the integrity commission.

Asked whether he regretted appointing Sofronoff for this critical task, Barr could muster only this on Monday:

“I don’t think there’s much value in going over all of that. He came highly recommended. I think there’s been a lapse of judgment here in relation to those actions.”

The circus that has accompanied the report’s release has done enormous damage. It began on Wednesday, when the Australian published an exhaustive account of Sofronoff’s findings, weeks before they were due to be published by the ACT government. The ABC followed with its own reporting, also citing the report, the next day, once the findings were being widely reported.

It soon emerged that journalists from both outlets had been handed advance copies by Sofronoff himself, on an embargo stipulating they not publish anything until the ACT government releases its report. One of those journalists had been handed the report before Barr himself received it.

The Australian says it did not breach an embargo and that it would not reveal its sources. The ABC has declined to comment.

Barr says he has also since learned that Sofronoff was briefing individual journalists before the daily hearings, telling them what he expected to focus on.

The consequences have been severe. For Drumgold, who was able to see and respond to adverse findings but not the final report. For the government, which says it has been rushed into its response by the premature publication. And for the public, whose faith in the justice system must surely be fractured by the absurdity of this all-important process.

“This should have drawn a line under this matter,” Barr said on Monday. “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. Significant questions. And it is just so disappointing.”

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