The ACT government faces a block to investigating how police acted in the Bruce Lehrmann case. By Karen Middleton.

Limits on Lehrmann case inquiry

A young Caucasian man with facial hair, a fuller face and a closed expression walks through camerapeople. He is wearing a red tie, white shirt and a suit.
Former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann leaves the ACT Supreme Court in October.
Credit: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Moves to establish an inquiry into the aborted prosecution of former federal ministerial adviser Bruce Lehrmann for the alleged rape of his colleague, Brittany Higgins, have exposed a gap in the ACT’s integrity regime that prevents it from scrutinising the local police.

The ACT government has been examining possible mechanisms for establishing an inquiry into the case, which collapsed after juror misconduct caused a mistrial in October and a planned retrial was abandoned out of concerns for Higgins’s health. Lehrmann strongly denied the charges.

The Saturday Paper has been told the delay in settling details of an independent inquiry has been due in large part to the jurisdictional overlap of federal and territory agencies in the case – and particularly the fact ACT Policing is effectively a hybrid, operating under territory law but also as part of the Australian Federal Police.

As such, the ACT constitution excludes ACT Policing from the jurisdiction of the ACT Integrity Commission, leaving it effectively exempt from scrutiny under ACT law. When the commission was established in 2018, the ACT government applied to the Morrison government for authority to bring ACT Policing within the commission’s remit. Permission was denied, with the AFP refusing to be subject to ACT government authority. That remains the case.

This is believed to be why recent criticisms of the role of ACT Policing in the case have been referred to a federal agency, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, instead. Some are questioning the appropriateness of the commission as an investigator in the case.

Separate from that referral, the ACT government wants to establish a broader independent inquiry into how the Lehrmann case was handled. This would examine the roles of police, the DPP and others.

Last week, details emerged of a letter from ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold in which he accused police of pressuring him not to prosecute, bullying the complainant and helping the defence. Drumgold also raised concerns about the behaviour of former federal minister Linda Reynolds – a witness in the case, in whose Parliament House ministerial suite the 2019 incident allegedly occurred.

Higgins and Drumgold had previously complained to police after discovering the police had wrongly provided Higgins’s confidential counselling notes and video of her evidence-in-chief interviews to the defence. Through the AFP, ACT Policing has declined to disclose the status of the complaints.

Recent reports in The Australian newspaper also revealed diary notes from a senior police officer suggesting police opposed prosecuting Lehrmann, believing there was no reasonable chance of success, and reporting the case had been subject to “political interference”.

This week, Higgins’s lawyer, Noor Blumer, confirmed her client had reached a confidential settlement with the Commonwealth in a workplace claim related to her treatment while employed as a ministerial staffer for Reynolds and another minister, Michaelia Cash.

Higgins is believed to have sought up to $3 million in compensation, claiming negligence, sexual discrimination and harassment, disability discrimination and victimisation. The claim was understood to cover past and future earnings loss and out-of-pocket expenses.

The payout came after just one day of mediation and without the former ministers being allowed to defend the claim. One Nation senator Pauline Hanson condemned the deal as lacking transparency.

Bruce Lehrmann has engaged a defamation lawyer and is understood to be considering a range of civil actions. Lehrmann pleaded not guilty when he faced the ACT Supreme Court in October on one count of sexual intercourse without consent, and denies any sexual contact with Higgins occurred. No findings were made against him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Lehrmann inquiry".

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