The head of the Bruce Lehrmann Inquiry faces penalties for leaking his final report to the mainstream media prior to handing it to the chief minister. Dr Jennifer Wilson reports.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.
FORMER Queensland Supreme Court judge Walter Sofronoff KC was appointed by the A.C.T. Government to head an Inquiry, requested by the territory's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shane Drumgold, into the criminal justice system’s handling of the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann for the alleged rape of political staffer, Brittany Higgins.
The incident allegedly took place in the Parliament House office of then Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds.
Last week, Sofronoff handed his report to the A.C.T. Government. Inexplicably, he first sent copies to ABC journalist Elizabeth Byrne and The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen under an embargo that (theoretically) prevented publication until after the A.C.T. Government released the report.
This is despite Mr Sofronoff lashing out at journalists during the Inquiry for “pruriently” cherry-picking and misusing material given in evidence.
Mr Sofronoff stated that:
“Each of them [Byrne and Albrechtsen] was sent a copy upon the express agreement by them that the copy was embargoed until the Government had published it.”
Albrechtsen published immediately, claiming that in an extraordinarily fortuitous turn of events, a non-embargoed copy was received by The Australian at the same time.
The A.C.T.’s Inquiries Act requires that reports are to be submitted only to the chief minister who then decides how and when they are presented to the A.C.T. legislative assembly. There are serious penalties for any member of a board of inquiry who allows broader access to reports prior to this process.
Why then did Mr Sofronoff feel the need to furnish two journalists with his report and did he really believe that The Australian would honour an embargo?
According to News.com.au, Mr Sofronoff said his action
“…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.”
It’s almost as if he didn’t trust the A.C.T. Government to furnish a true appreciation of his work, although why he should hold that view has not been made clear.
That a KC would override inquiry protocol is in itself disturbing, but it is astounding that the man chosen by the A.C.T. Government to conduct an inquiry into an already extremely fraught and complex situation should apparently not trust that government to fully and in a timely fashion relay his findings to the public, instead providing the report to two personally chosen journalists.
Albrechtsen’s article highlighted Sofronoff’s damaging findings against Drumgold.
‘Trial treachery: the lies of unethical Drumgold’ was The Australian’s headline.
This framing should surprise no one as her paper has pursued Drumgold relentlessly since he took the decision to prosecute Lehrmann.
That Mr Drumgold himself demanded the Inquiry that has resulted in his public humiliation is notable as yet another twist in a lengthy narrative peppered with dramatic and unanticipated plot turns. As we say on the socials, you could not make this up.
From the postponement of the trial owing to comments by media celebrity Lisa Wilkinson, to the dismissal of the trial owing to juror misconduct, to the spate of defamation threats made by Senator Linda Reynolds who herself was ordered to pay damages to Lehrmann’s alleged victim, Brittany Higgins, for describing her as a “lying cow”, the unforeseen consequences of Lehrmann’s alleged rape of Higgins in Senator Reynolds’ office continue to manifest, leaving few unscathed.
The entire saga so far will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on women who wish to report alleged rape, especially alleged rape by men in powerful positions or with close ties to the powerful.
Individuals who are the subjects of an inquiry such as that held by Sofronoff are entitled to procedural fairness, which includes being informed of reports prior to them being made public and being given the opportunity to respond.
Sofronoff’s actions denied Drumgold this right and he was left to read damning findings as cherry-picked from the report by Albrechtsen.
There is no way Sofronoff could not have been aware that Drumgold would be denied procedural fairness in the event of media disregarding the embargo. Neither could he have been unaware of the risk of his report being cherry-picked by journalists to suit their narrative. This is grimly ironic, given his actions were apparently driven by the need to prevent redaction or suppression by the A.C.T. Government.
Had the A.C.T. Government delayed and/or suppressed aspects of Sofronoff’s report, surely the KC could have addressed that at the time, rather than making a pre-emptive strike via The Australian, which has conducted a long-running vendetta against Ms Higgins and others active in her cause, including publishing leaked material not used in the trial.
As of writing, Shane Drumgold has resigned as the A.C.T. DPP, saying his position is no longer tenable.
Mr Drumgold also contests Sofronoff’s findings, saying:
“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. It is difficult to reconcile the findings with the trial judge’s expression of gratitude at the end of the case, for the exemplary way all counsel conducted the trial.”
Lehrmann has announced his intention to sue the office of the A.C.T. DPP for compensation if Sofronoff’s report found that Drumgold acted with “malice, or against his duties as DPP and as an officer of the court” and in so doing, damaged Lehrmann’s reputation and ruined his future employment prospects.
What happens next in this story is anybody’s guess. One thing we can be sure of, there will be no justice afforded to Ms Higgins or the alleged rapist, Bruce Lehrmann.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
*This article is also available on audio here:
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- Whether Morrison knew or not, he is an abject moral failure and should resign: FLASHBACK 2021
- Brittany Higgins' bravery exposes struggle for women's legal rights
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