Andrew L. Urban.
The last witness on Thursday, June 1, 2023, in the public hearings of the ACT Board of Inquiry chaired by former judge Walter Sofronoff KC was Heidi Yates, the Victims of Crime Commissioner, made famous and recognisable accompanying her ‘client’ Brittany Higgins daily at the now abandoned rape trial in 2022. And the name of that organisation may well be changed on the recommendation of Mr Sofronoff…just a guess.
While pre-empting Mr Sofronoff’s report to the ACT Government due at the end of July would be impertinent and foolhardy, I am prepared to take a guess that one of his recommendations will be to change the name of the Victims of Crime Commission and hence the title of the Commissioner, Heidi Yates.
I base my guess on the remarks made by Mr Sofronoff during the hearing, when he raised the prospect of ‘Victims’ in the title being perhaps inappropriate. He suggested a more apt and legally secure title might be ‘Complainants of Crime Commission’ instead of ‘Victims’. Calling complainants victims gives at least the appearance of judgement before a trial and threatens the presumption of innocence.
If this were indeed to come about, the Inquiry will have made a significant contribution to the discussion about nomenclatures and the law, and even perhaps to the principle of ‘victim-centric’ policing. (‘Evidence-centric’ policing would better reflect the needs of the law.)
It should be stressed, however, that witnesses who were questioned about the role Yates played as support person to Brittany Higgins were unanimous in their praise of her professionalism and cooperation in that capacity. She did admit, however, that in hindsight she may have made different decisions regarding her physical presence at Higgins’ side, when, for example, she stood beside the complainant outside court when the trial was aborted making a speech that seemed to breach the presumption of Lehrmann’s innocence.
Yates told the inquiry that it was Higgins’ choice to make her daily entrance in the glare of public attention through the main entrance to the court, not a more discreet & private option. During her evidence, Yates quoted the various regulations that guide the Commission and her functions (see clause f below).
The ACT Board of Inquiry into the Criminal Justice System was established by the ACT Government on 21 December 2022, by Chief Minister Andrew Barr, MLA and Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury, MLA, with the following Terms of Reference:
The board will inquire into
a. Whether any police officers failed to act in accordance with their duties or acted in breach of their duties:
ii. in their conduct of the investigation of the allegations of Ms. Brittany Higgins concerning Mr Bruce Lehrmann;
iii. in their dealings with the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to his duty to decide whether to commence, to continue and to discontinue criminal proceedings against Mr Lehrmann in relation to those allegations;
iv. in their dealings with the legal representatives for Mr Lehrmann before, during or after the trial in the matter of R v Lehrmann;
v. in their provision of information to any persons in relation to the matter of R v Lehrmann.
b. If any police officers so acted, their reasons and motives for their actions.
c. Whether the Director of Public Prosecutions failed to act in accordance with his duties or acted in breach of his duties in:
i. making his decisions to commence, to continue and to discontinue criminal proceedings against Mr Lehrmann; and
ii. his conduct of the preparation of the proceedings for hearings; and
iii. his conduct of the proceedings.
d. If the Director of Public Prosecutions so acted, his reasons and motives for his actions.
e. The circumstances around, and decisions which led to the public release of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions’ letter to the Chief Police Officer of ACT Policing dated 1 November 2022.
f. Whether the Victims of Crime Commissioner acted in accordance with the relevant statutory framework in terms of support provided to the complainant in the matter of R v Lehrmann.
g. Any matter reasonably incidental to any of the above matters.