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ACT crime victims’ commissioner defends accompanying Brittany Higgins during Lehrmann trial

Wille Okon 138 June 1, 2023

ACT’s victims of crime commissioner says she would consider walking a sexual assault complainant to court again and accompanying them while they spoke to the media despite being criticised for similar conduct in support of Brittany Higgins.

The commissioner, Heidi Yates, gave evidence on Thursday before an independent board of inquiry established to investigate the ACT criminal justice system’s handling of the case.

Yates has been criticised for her role in supporting Higgins, who alleged her former Liberal party colleague Bruce Lehrmann raped her in a minister’s office in Parliament House in March 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.

Yates noted that concerns about her walking into court with Higgins during Lehrmann’s trial were not raised until after the trial was completed, but that if they had been she would have considered not doing so, in order to promote “public faith and understanding in my office”.

Yates was also asked by counsel assisting the inquiry, Erin Longbottom KC, whether it was appropriate that she stood next to Higgins when she made a speech outside court after the jury had been discharged in Lehrmann’s trial.

Yates said she had left the courtroom with Higgins earlier after it appeared she was having a panic attack, and she was concerned Higgins could have a similar attack or even collapse while addressing the media.

She said that it had become clear in her dealings with Higgins that she only had a small circle of people she could trust, and that changes in the circumstances of cases made her particularly vulnerable, to the point that she may self-harm.

Police had alerted Yates after finding material on Higgins’ phone that showed she had researched self-harm, she said.

The inquiry heard Yates had sought Higgins’ permission to share details about the extent of the support she provided.

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Yates said her main focus after the jury was discharged was ensuring that Higgins was safely able to make her way from court to her hotel.

While she had not ever stood with a complainant outside court when they spoke to media, she said other commissioners had done so.

But Yates said that in hindsight she should have considered the content of the speech, and also would have liked to review the judge’s comments in discharging the jury, given she had missed the end of the hearing while assisting Higgins.

“I’m very open to the likelihood that if I had more information to consider I may have made a different decision,” she said.

Yates also told the inquiry that after an interview with police on 26 May 2021, Det Supt Scott Moller told Higgins that the charge could not go ahead and it would “all be for nothing” if she continued to speak with the media.

Yates said that Moller had previously made similar statements, but on this occasion he was louder, harsher, used his hands to emphasise his point, and it was “directive, rather than informative”.

She said Higgins “started to slump in her chair, she started looking down, and I believe she started to cry”.

Yates said she immediately intervened, telling the inquiry she had previously dealt with other complainants in sexual assault matters who blamed themselves for charges collapsing, and wanted to ensure Higgins and police knew it would not be the complainant’s fault if a similar outcome occurred in the Lehrmann case.

The former Queensland solicitor general Walter Sofronoff, who is chairing the inquiry, said that it appeared Moller was saying two things: that Higgins should not speak to the media, and that if she did the case would collapse.

Yates confirmed to Sofronoff that her reason for intervening was related to the second element of Moller’s directive: that Higgins would be to blame if the case collapsed.

The hearing continues.