The Australian Federal Police will be investigated for attempting to pervert the course of justice while looking into the alleged sexual assault of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins by her colleague Bruce Lehrmann.
The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), a watchdog tasked with detecting corruption in federal agencies including the AFP, will also investigate how the private diaries and text messages of Higgins were leaked to the media despite not being tendered in evidence to court.
In an email seen by the Herald and T Age, ACLEI executive director of operations Peter Ratcliffe confirms his agency is investigating whether “AFP members attempted to pervert the course of justice by pressuring Ms Brittany Higgins not to proceed with the matter”.
The agency will also investigate whether the police attempted to pervert the course of justice by “bypassing administrative processes that enabled protected information contained in a brief of evidence to be served on the defence at the time the summons and charge were served”.
This is a reference to sensitive material the police gathered in its investigation which would normally be redacted before being given to the defence legal team, but which was not in the case of the Lehrmann trial.
This material included notes from Higgins’ private psychological sessions, and the video of her interview with police.
Some sensitive material later found its way into articles in The Australian newspaper.
Ratcliffe confirmed the commission has also launched a separate investigation into the “potential leaking of documents and photos by AFP members to the media”, following a complaint from Higgins’ lawyer Leon Zwier.
In July ACLEI will be folded into the freshly minted National Anti-Corruption Commission, meaning the matter may be one of the first investigations undertaken by the new federal body.
Higgins first made her allegations of sexual assault in the media in February 2021, without naming the alleged perpetrator.
She said she had been raped by a Liberal colleague in the parliamentary office of their boss at the time, then-defence minister Linda Reynolds.
The matter sparked huge controversy for then-prime minister Scott Morrison and his government.
In August 2021, former Liberal staffer Lehrmann, who worked with Higgins in Reynolds’ office, was charged with sexual assault.
Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence of charges, saying no sexual contact took place between him and Higgins, and is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
He is now suing various media outlets for defamation for publishing Higgins’ claims.
The criminal matter went on trial in October 2022 but was aborted following juror misconduct, and a retrial was abandoned due to concerns over Higgins’ mental health.
Since then, the police investigation itself has been mired in controversy, with the Australian Federal Police and the crown prosecutors both accusing each other of misconduct.
In November last year, Chief Prosecutor Shane Drumgold, SC, wrote a letter to the ACT’s police chief Neil Gaughan complaining that police officers had engaged in “a very clear campaign to pressure” him not to proceed with the prosecution of Lehrmann for the alleged rape.
Drumgold accused them of “clear investigator interference in the criminal justice process”.
He also said that Higgins felt bullied by police investigators and that they had cherry-picked evidence to make the case seem unviable.
The spill-over of the toxic relationship between the agencies led to the ACT government launching an inquiry into the investigation of the case.
In January, it was announced the respected former judge Walter Sofronoff, KC, would lead that inquiry, which is now under way.
Lawyers for Lehrmann and Higgins declined to comment on the investigation, nor did the AFP.
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