Drumgold notches small win as he seeks to quash Sofronoff inquiry findings

Drumgold notches small win as he seeks to quash Sofronoff inquiry findings

November 15, 2023

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Lawyers for the prosecutor in the Bruce Lehrmann trial, Shane Drumgold, have won access to documents regarding the communications of Walter Sofronoff, KC, who oversaw an inquiry into the high-profile case, as Drumgold attempts to quash the inquiry’s findings against him.

Sofronoff was advertised to appear at the Queensland Media Club with reporter Hedley Thomas from The Australian. However, the event was cancelled after it emerged that the former Queensland Supreme Court judge had leaked his board of inquiry report to reporters from The Australian and the ABC before handing it to the commissioning ACT government.

Walter Sofronoff, KC, who led the inquiry into the aborted Bruce Lehrmann trial.Credit: Robert Shakespeare

Lawyers for Drumgold, who resigned as ACT director of public prosecutions in the wake of the inquiry, argued for access to communications arranging Sofronoff’s appearance at the event, which was advertised to discuss “politics, journalism and social media v the presumption of innocence”.

The hearing on Friday was part of Drumgold’s legal action to overturn the Sofronoff inquiry’s findings about his conduct and stop the ACT government from taking any action against him based on its report.

Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping his former colleague, Brittany Higgins, in a Parliament House ministerial office during the early hours of March 23, 2019, in a high-profile Supreme Court trial that was ultimately aborted in October last year due to juror misconduct. A retrial was abandoned due to Higgins’ mental health, and Lehrmann has maintained his innocence since.

The case sparked several legal proceedings, including the inquiry into the handling of the trial after a public fallout between Drumgold and police, whom he accused of trying to undermine proceedings.

Former ACT director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold.Credit: Rhett Wyman

That allegation was found to be baseless by Sofronoff, who made several damning findings about Drumgold’s conduct, including that he had lied to the court in the lead-up to the trial, and had improperly questioned a high-profile witness, former Coalition minister Linda Reynolds.

Drumgold’s lawyers allege some of Sofronoff’s findings against him were legally unreasonable, including that he breached his duty as a prosecutor. They also say Drumgold was not given a fair hearing in relation to other findings, and that some of the findings were out of the inquiry’s jurisdiction.

Drumgold alleges the leaking of the inquiry report to select media outlets denied him natural justice and gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of Sofronoff.

Sofronoff had agreed to discuss the inquiry with Thomas on August 25, but cancelled after coming under fire for leaking the report, which he said he did with an embargo attached.

On Friday, during a directions hearing before ACT Supreme Court Acting Justice Stephen Kaye, Drumgold’s lawyers sought any communications about the arrangement of Sofronoff’s appearance before the Queensland Media Club.

Lawyers for Sofronoff opposed the application because he had “substantially admitted” he had agreed to appear at the event to discuss issues raised by the inquiry.

But Dan O’Gorman SC, representing Drumgold, said the admission made by Sofronoff did not go into the particulars of why he agreed.

“[The admission] doesn’t outline how that agreement was reached, the advertisement or the tweet advertising the gathering. [The admission] indicates Mr Sofronoff was to discuss ‘issues raised by the inquiry’ but there is nothing as to what those issues were,” he said.

“And there’s nothing as to the role The Australian … was set to play in hosting the event.”

John Sheahan KC, the board of inquiry’s lawyer also representing Sofronoff, argued his client’s admission that he had agreed to the event was enough evidence and there was no need for further details.

“I can understand my learned friend’s curiosity … he’d rather know when and how and what the issues were … but this court is not conducting a commission of inquiry into the commission of inquiry,” he said.

Kaye asked Sheahan whether the evidence Drumgold’s lawyers already had would “capture of itself the communications for the organisation of that address” to which Sheahan admitted it would not.

Kaye directed the board’s lawyers to hand over those communications.

The hearing continues.

More to come

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