Part 2: The Trial of Bruce Lehrmann

In our last article we explored the controversy surrounding the trial of Bruce Lehrmann, the man accused of raping a work colleagued inside of Parliament house in 2019. This matter captivated the nation and it would have been very hard to miss seeing the many media reports surrounding the charge and trial as it proceeded through the courts. The matter had a large amount of media coverage, due to a number of reasons, but largely due to the high-profile people who became involved in the matter.

This matter deeply divided the country. Many were supportive of Lehrmann, but many wanted to see him convicted and sent to jail. Our last article discussed the background of the matter, leading up to Mr Lehrmann’s eventual arrest, and the first trial that was ultimately abandoned on 27 October 2022 due to a member of the jury straying outside of the rules and conducting their own research into the matter while the trial was underway.

The second trial

The matter was then relisted for trial on 20 February 2023 but in December 2022, before the matter had reached a re-trial, the matter was discontinued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shane Drumgold. The reason given by Drumgold was that it was ‘no longer in the interest to pursue a prosecution’ after he had received evidence ‘that the ongoing trauma associated with the prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant’.

Essentially, Drumgold had received advice from two health professionals that they had assessed the complainant, Brittany Higgins, and determined that to proceed with the trial again would be too traumatic and actually dangerous for Ms Higgins. While the first trial was underway Ms Higgins was hospitalised so it was already public information that the whole process was taking it’s toll on her.

The fight between the police and the DPP

But that was not the end of the matter – far from it. On 3 December 2022 it emerged that the police had earlier assessed the evidence as being deficient and that they held a number of concerns about the matter. What followed was an extraordinary exchange between the police and prosecutions where each criticized the other for, essentially, not doing their jobs properly.

In Australia the DPP and police have very different functions. The police will investigate a matter, gather evidence, and if they are of the view that there is sufficient evidence for a conviction they will lay the charge against a person. Once they have charged that person they will gather all of the evidence and then provide it to the DPP. The DPP’s job is to then prosecute the matters before the courts in an attempt to, as fairly as they can, secure a conviction or whatever else is in the public’s best interests.

Drumgold accused the police of siding with the defence team and engaging in a number of acts, including placing pressure on his office not to prosecute Lehrmann and disclosing to the defence material which was otherwise not able to be disclosed.

Drumgold alleged that during his first meeting with police about the case in early 2021 the police had selected the evidence in an attempt to persuade Drumgold to agree with their view that charges against Lehrmann should not be laid. He then said that in further meetings in April and June the police used mischaracterisations and inaccurate summaries of evidence to highlight weaknesses in the case and to try to convince him again that the charges should not be laid. Drumgold maintained that this happened again in their final meeting with him in June 2022.

The police saw things very differently. They were of the view that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction from the very beginning, identifying several inconsistencies and deficiencies in their evidence. Their position was that the DPP was ignoring their views and were hellbent on securing a conviction at all costs – even ignoring all of the problems with the case that they had identified.

Drumgold then told the chief of the police that he wanted a public inquiry into the matter, which was to examine both political and police conduct. Such an inquiry would examine exactly what happened between the police and the DPP and would involve key witnesses giving evidence to determine, amongst other things, where things went wrong and who was to blame for the collapse. This inquiry was to be led by Walter Sofronoff K.C., a former Court of Appeal President from Queensland.

The inquiry

Following a detailed and very public inquiry, Sofronoff reached a number of conclusions. Firstly, Sofronoff found that there was sufficient evidence to commence a prosecution against Lehrmann (which is not to say that there was sufficient evidence for a conviction). However, the main findings were towards Drumgold. Amongst the most damning findings were that Drumgold had:

  1. generated false and scandalous accusations which led to the inquiry in the first place
  2. deliberately advanced a false claim of legal professional privilege and misled the court in order to deny key documents being provided to the defence
  3. knowingly lied to the Chief Justice of the ACT by falsely claiming that a file note about a conversation with Lisa Wilkinson shortly before her Logies speech was written at the same time the conference occurred
  4. abused the trust of his young staff member by directing them on what was to be noted in the relevant file note

The findings against Drumgold were so damning that, on 6 August 2023, following a review by a board of inquiry into his conduct, he resigned. In doing so he said, “Although I dispute many of the findings of the inquiry, I accept that the premature publicity surrounding me means that my office, the courts and, most importantly, the ACT public could not presently have faith in the discharge of the functions of the DPP.”

However, this may not be the end of the matter. In August 2023 Drumgold launched legal action to quash the damning findings about his conduct, claiming that he was not treated fairly during the inquiry. We will report back once there have been developments into this action.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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