Major win for Drumgold in legal fight

ARCHIVE Shane Drumgold Press conference 2/12/2022
Shane Drumgold has asked the ACT Supreme Court to quash the report’s findings. Picture: NCA NewsWire/ Martin Ollman

Former ACT chief prosecutor Shane Drumgold has had a major win after a judge found the chair of a board of inquiry acted with reasonable apprehended bias, as he texted a journalist during evidence.

Parts of a damning report into how the former top prosecutor handled Bruce Lehrmann’s prosecution will be struck out after it found he engaged in malpractice and unethical behaviour.

D-Day arrived for Mr Drumgold on Monday, after he launched legal action against the territory’s government and a board of inquiry into his handling of Mr Lehrmann’s prosecution for the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.

The three-day hearing took place at the ACT Supreme Court in February, with Acting Justice Steven Kaye on Monday delivering his judgment in favour of the prosecutor.

Justice Kaye found former Queensland Supreme Court judge Walter Sofronoff KC displayed bias during the inquiry into Mr Drumgold’s conduct during the trial.

He ruled Ms Sofronoff’s communications with Janet Albrechtsen of The Australian newspaper “before and during the inquiry” gave rise to a “reasonable apprehension of bias”.

“It was such that a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably have apprehended that the first defendant, in determining chapters four, five and six of the report.... might have been influenced by the views held and publicly expressed at times by Ms Albrechtsen,” Justice Kaye said on Monday.

ARCHIVE Shane Drumgold Press conference 2/12/2022
Former ACT chief prosecutor Shane Drumgold’s will learn if a damning report about his behaviour will be struck out. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

The court was told Mr Sofronoff had exchanged more than 50 phone calls with The Australian journalist, with the pair even dining together over the course of the inquiry.

Justice Kaye on Monday upheld seven of the eight inquiry findings Mr Drumgold disagreed with in regards to legal responsibility.

He found the finding by Mr Sofronoff that Mr Drumgold had engaged in “grossly unethical conduct” in his cross-examination of Linda Reynolds to be legally unreasonable.

The final ground argued by Mr Drumgold was based on a breach of natural justice, claiming Mr Sofronoff failed to give him a fair hearing in respect to three findings in the board of inquiry report.

He concluded Mr Sofronoff “failed to afford the plaintiff natural justice in respect of the finding in the report that the plaintiff’s statement to the chief police officer on 8 December 2022 concerning his lack of knowledge about the Freedom of Information application relating to the one November 2022 letter, was false.”

Despite the findings, much of Mr Sofronoff’s damning report will remain upheld as Justice Kaye did not set aside the inquiry’s findings.

The judge ordered the ACT government pay Mr Drumgold’s legal costs for bringing the case.

Mr Drumgold handled the prosecution of Mr Lehrmann, a former parliamentary staffer who was accused of raping his colleague Ms Higgins in 2019.

Mr Lehrmann’s 2022 jury trial was declared a mistrial due to juror misconduct and a planned retrial was abandoned by prosecutors due to concerns about Ms Higgins’ mental health.

Former parliamentary staffer Bruce Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping his colleague Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019. He has continued to deny the allegations. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Monique Harmer

He pleaded not guilty and has continued to deny the allegations.

The inquiry into Mr Lehrmann’s prosecution made serious findings of misconduct and unethical behaviour against Mr Drumgold.

Mr Sofronoff found the former chief prosecutor “lost objectivity and did not act with fairness and detachment as was required by his role” during the trial, advanced a false claim of legal professional privilege over certain documents and misled the court about notes made during a meeting with journalist Lisa Wilkinson, before her infamous Logies speech, among other claims.

Mr Drumgold resigned in the fallout of the report’s release and launched legal action against the ACT government and Mr Sofronoff’s inquiry.

In his statement of claim, Mr Drumgold argued the inquiry denied him “natural justice”, breached the law and “gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias”.

He also claimed findings in part of the report were “legally unreasonable”, including findings he had “knowingly lied to the Chief Justice” and advanced a false claim of legal professional privilege about certain documents during the trial.

During the three-day hearing in February, Dan O’Gorman SC, acting on behalf of Mr Drumgold, argued that Mr Sofronoff had “poisoned his mind” against the former prosecutor before he gave evidence in the inquiry.

Brittany Higgins claimed she was raped. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Jeremy Piper

Mr O’Gorman argued Mr Sofronoff had developed an “unreasonable” relationship with The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen that gave rise to an apprehension of bias.

The hearing examined communications by journalists and Mr Sofronoff throughout the inquiry.

Of the 91 calls made to journalists, Mr Sofronoff spoke with journalists from the national broadsheet for more than 11 hours.

Some calls and texts even occurred while Mr Drumgold was giving evidence in the witness box, the court was told.

Mr O’Gorman told the court that Ms Albrechtsen wrote “negative” articles about Mr Drumgold and had “poisoned” Mr Sofronoff’s mind.

He argued the regular calls and text messages “infected” Mr Sofronoff with the journalist’s bias.

Representing the ACT government, Kate Eastmann SC told the court the argument had “no foundation”.

If Justice Kaye on Monday finds Mr Sofronoff held an apprehended bias while conducting the inquiry, parts of the final report could be deemed invalid.

Otherwise, he could find Mr Sofronoff displayed no bias and the findings will be upheld in full.