The ACT’s victims of crime commissioner, Heidi Yates, says she would have reconsidered standing next to Brittany Higgins during a televised speech after the Lehrmann rape trial was aborted if she’d known what she was going to say.
Yates, who has been publicly accused of damaging the presumption of innocence of former Coalition staffer Bruce Lehrmann by her actions in the high-profile case, has told a public inquiry she was instead thinking of the possibility of his accuser collapsing while addressing the media shortly after the mistrial.
“She was clearly not OK,” Yates told the inquiry into the handling of the case, explaining Higgins had suffered a panic attack when ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucy McCallum cut short the trial on the morning of October 27, 2022, due to the misconduct of a single juror.
“I was extremely concerned for her welfare … she was still not looking well. I was concerned that should she pause outside the court and make a kind of statement that she would have another panic attack or indeed collapse.”
Yates said Higgins had to be hospitalised due to acute mental health episodes at multiple points throughout the investigative and trial process.
During that speech, in which she was flanked by Yates, Higgins criticised the justice system and the public scrutiny that she had undergone in comparison to Lehrmann.
That speech prompted Lehrmann’s trial barrister, Steven Whybrow, SC, to refer Higgins to police and the court.
“It is not appropriate for Mr Lehrmann or his lawyers to make any comment as to whether the complainant’s statements might amount to a contempt of court or offences against the ACT Criminal Code,” he said in a statement on the day.
Asked whether, in hindsight, she should have asked about the content of Higgins’ speech before agreeing with her request to stand next to her, Yates replied: “In hindsight, yes.”
Asked if she still would have stood next to Higgins had she known the content of the speech beforehand, Yates replied, “I’m very open to the likelihood that if I had more information to consider, I may have made a different decision”.
Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping Higgins in the parliamentary office of their then-boss, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, on March 23, 2019, and has always maintained his innocence.
The ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, SC, announced on December 2 last year a retrial would not go ahead due to concerns over Higgins’ mental health. The public fallout between Drumgold and police in the aftermath prompted the ACT government to launch an inquiry into the handling of the high-profile case, the terms of which include whether Yates acted in accordance with the relevant statutory framework.
Inquiry chair Walter Sofronoff, KC, said Yates was faced with the dual interests of supporting Higgins and maintaining Lehrmann’s presumption of innocence, a statutory duty she held due to her position as a human rights commissioner in the ACT.
Yates said criticisms relating to her being the “public face of support” for Higgins concerned her, but denied crossing a line by accompanying Higgins past television cameras to court to give evidence.
“If at any point through those engagements any concerns had been raised with me about the support I was providing Ms Higgins, I would have absolutely considered those,” Yates said. “It would’ve been incredibly important for me to consider and address those.”
Yates said she first came into contact with Higgins after Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, asked the commissioner to accompany Higgins to a meeting with then-prime minister Scott Morrison in late April 2021, months after she had gone public with her rape allegation.
The purpose of the meeting was for Higgins to advocate for systemic change in the handling of sexual assault claims, a function Yates said was part of her statutory remit. Yates also accompanied Higgins to meetings with then-opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Labor’s then-spokesperson for women, Tanya Plibersek.
Public hearings in the inquiry have now concluded and a report is due to be handed to the ACT government by July 31.
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