Walter Sofronoff, the head of the ACT inquiry into the handling of the Bruce Lehrmann prosecution, has pulled out of a Queensland Media Club event at which he was to discuss the “presumption of innocence”.
Sofronoff, who was criticised by the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, for handing his report to a columnist from The Australian before the government, was slated to appear at an event on 25 August hosted by Hedley Thomas, the newspaper’s national chief correspondent.
Just hours after Guardian Australia contacted Sofronoff and the Queensland Media Club for comment, and one hour after publishing a story revealing the event, the club announced it was cancelled.
“Given the issues that have now arisen between Mr Sofronoff and the ACT chief minister and attorney general, Mr Sofronoff considers that it is not possible to participate in the proposed event,” it said in a statement posted to social media.
The ACT government is seeking legal advice about whether Sofronoff may have breached the ACT’s Inquiries Act, which allows boards of inquiry to submit their reports to the chief minister only. It has also said it is considering a referral to the ACT Integrity Commission.
According to the description of the event, titled “Politics, journalism and social media v The presumption of innocence”, Sofronoff was set to “address the handling of allegations made by Brittany Higgins against Bruce Lehrmann and issues raised”.
Sofronoff, the former Queensland solicitor general and president of the Queensland court of appeal, is billed as a “prominent jurist” who has “completed his inquiry into the handling of allegations”, which was released by the ACT government on Monday.
“His address to the Queensland Media Club will discuss the issues raised including contemporary challenges to a fundamental legal principle.”
Sofronoff recently conducted an inquiry into forensic DNA testing in Queensland. He noted at paragraph three of his report that publicity given to a case of “mishandled” DNA evidence in a recent murder case “reinforced by articles published in the Australian newspaper by Mr Thomas” and his colleagues had helped spark the inquiry.
On Monday, in front of an audience of reporters in Canberra, Barr accused Sofronoff of breaching “good faith” by releasing his own report into the Lehrmann prosecution and speaking to journalists during that inquiry.
Barr accused Sofronoff of “a lapse of judgment”, suggesting he “is not the first person who has had their confidences breached by that media outlet”, in reference to the Australian.
Despite publishing a detailed story on the findings on Wednesday night, the Australian has denied breaching an embargo and declared it will “not reveal” its sources.
Barr said Sofronoff had explained to him that he had provided a copy of the report to a newspaper columnist and a broadcast journalist.
“Each of them was given a copy upon express agreement by them that the copy was embargoed until the government had published it.”
In a letter to Barr, obtained by News.com.au, Sofronoff said he had provided it to the Australian and the ABC on the express agreement that the findings would not be published until after the government released the report.
“It served to ensure that when the government published the report that those two journalists would be in a position swiftly and promptly to write and broadcast stories that would have at their foundation a true appreciation of the result of the work of the commission,’’ Sofronoff said, according to News.com.au.
Higgins alleged Lehrmann, a former colleague, raped her in Parliament House in 2019. Lehrmann, who pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual intercourse without consent, has always denied the allegation of rape and no findings have been made against him.
Lehrmann was tried by the ACT supreme court in October but a mistrial was declared due to juror misconduct. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against him because of fears about the impact a second trial would have on Higgins’s mental health.
Lehrmann has threatened to sue the ACT government over adverse findings about director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold’s handling of the case.
Asked for his reaction to release of the report, Lehrmann told Guardian Australia: “I have plenty to say after [Monday’s] mess of a press conference but I’ll wait until I sit down with Liam Bartlett again this Sunday on 7News Spotlight.”