Law Analysis

R v Lehrmann and metastasising legal matters

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(Image by Dan Jensen)

The Lehrmann rape trial may have been aborted without a verdict but the ensuing legal dramas continue, seemingly without end, writes managing editor Michelle Pini.

WHO WOULD have thought that an alleged rape in Parliament House would be such a challenge to our legal processes and any confidence we may still have in them?

Or that there would be a mistrial due to jury misconduct?

Or that the alleged victim, Brittany Higgins, whose fragile mental health would preclude another trial after the aborted one, would then be sued for defamation herself and be made to attend endless legal proceedings and mediation sessions, anyway? And that the ensuing stress she would incur would result in her again being hospitalised?

Who would imagine that the legal officer charged with upholding justice and fairness in the ensuing legal process, Walter Sofranoff, would leak his findings to a member of the “friendly media” even before presenting his report to the ACT Government?

Or that the alleged rapist, Bruce Lehrmann, who has maintained his innocence, would then sue other “non-friendly” (in this case) media – such as Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson – for defamation?

Or that he would be charged with two further, unrelated counts of sexual assault?

And if anyone assumed legal stoushes stemming from the alleged Parliament House rape of Higgins by Lehrmann would end once Justice Michael Lee presents his Lehrmann v Network Ten defamation trial ruling – due this month – recent court proceedings and court-ordered mediation sessions would beg to differ.

Centre for Public Integrity director Geoffrey Watson SC said on Tuesday (5 March):

"Whatever happened that night in Parliament House has spun off into something uncontrollable… It's metastasised across the country."

Indeed. Maybe this is to be expected when the justice system is used by those tasked to uphold it as covert public relations intel for select media outlets.

Mr Watson was commenting after a challenge sought by former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Shane Drumgold SC against the ACT Government and the board of inquiry chaired by Walter Sofranoff KC, which specifically ‘examined the conduct of criminal justice agencies involved in the trial of R v Lehrmann’.

Acting Justice Stephen Kaye ruled inquiry chair, Sofronoff, ‘at times … lost objectivity and did not act with fairness and detachment’, and his conduct indicated ‘reasonable apprehension of bias’ against Mr Drumgold.

This ruling took into account Mr Sofronoff's communications with The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen, which included more than 50 phone calls, text messages while evidence was being given, and even a private lunch over a six-month period.

The case resulted in a win for Drumgold, who launched the costs order against the ACT and the board of inquiry into his handling of Lehrmann’s prosecution for the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.

Drumgold was previously excoriated by Sofronoff’s report and the waiting media vultures, which were, you guessed it, led by Janet Alberechtsen.

Mr Watson said ‘Mr Sofronoff's engagement with Ms Albrechtsen left the inquiry process "irredeemably flawed".’

Mr Watson wrote in The Guardian:

‘Sofronoff has defended this, saying he was following a practice that commissioners make direct personal contact with the press. Sofronoff might think that, but no lawyer I know agrees with him. Everyone has been shocked by his conduct.’

Not that this has made a skerrick of difference to the News Corp columnist at the centre of the imbroglio, who continues to misrepresent the facts and attack Mr Drumgold as recently as three days ago, with her latest piece titled, ‘Shane Drumgold’s reputation remains in tatters’.

Of course, Albrechtsen leaves out certain key details in her incendiary article, such as the fact that Drumgold was justified in prosecuting Lehrmann for alleged rape and that he won his costs order.

Meanwhile, the alleged victim in this whole sorry saga, Brittany Higgins, was again hospitalised after spending more than nine hours in mediation with her former boss, Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds. In this particular court-ordered proceeding, for which they were required to travel 14,000 km from France to attend, Ms Higgins and her partner David Sharaz are both being sued by Ms Reynolds for defamation.

In a statement on Wednesday (6 March), Senator Reynolds said:

‘I had been confidentially made aware of this very unfortunate development and am very concerned for Ms Higgins’ well-being.’

Ms Reynolds also received a $90,000 payout after launching a defamation action against the ACT Government, following comments made by former DPP Shane Drumgold.

On Monday (4 March), Ms Reynolds posted on Facebook that this settlement was: 

'...the fifth defamation claim I have resolved to my satisfaction.’

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said the ACT Government had reached a compromise settlement with Senator Reynolds, which also included an apology.

When asked to comment further on the court's findings about Mr Sofranoff, Mr Rattenbury said:

"Given the propensity of people involved in this matter to start defamation proceedings, my inclination is to keep my remarks pretty limited today."

A prudent policy — and so say all of us.

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You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter/X @independentaus and Facebook HERE.

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