News & Current Affairs

By Peter Woodhouse


Inquiry report must be released swiftly

Sometime today, the report of Walter Sofronoff KC, the end product of the Inquiry into the ACT Criminal Justice System, will be presented to the ACT Government.

Recent media reporting suggests that the ACT Government, led by Chief Minister Andrew Barr, is not going to release the report any time soon and the report will go through “a proper cabinet process” (whatever that means). All or part of the report is not expected to be tabled in the Legislative Assembly until the end of August and the Government “may provide an interim response to some, or all, of the recommendations” at that time.  Mr Barr’s response suggests that the Government may never release the entirety of the report.  If that is his position, it is entirely unacceptable. 

Mr Barr’s response is reminiscent of his namesake, former US Attorney General William Barr and his fumbling of the release of the “Mueller Report” into the conduct of former US President Donald Trump.  We can and should do better than that. The Chief Minister should clarify his position immediately and commit to releasing the full report as soon as he is able to do so.

Hopefully the delayed release of the report means Mr Barr’s Government will use the time to start mopping up the mess that has become apparent by the public airing of the dirty laundry that is the ACT Criminal Justice System, specifically the conduct of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, and his office more broadly, and coming up with a plan to restore the public faith in our legal processes which has been waning for more than 6 months.

In early December last year, I wrote a blog calling for Mr Drumgold to resign.  A few were critical of the piece, but I have to say, I had overwhelming support from the public and even more so from lawyers who know Mr Drumgold and have been in court against him.  I even received calls from his former colleagues who had their own “Drumgold stories” to share. They were not good stories.

Shortly thereafter, Mr Drumgold called for an inquiry into Mr Lerhmann’s case – and he got it.  There is a great deal of irony that the inquiry Mr Drumgold publicly called for is likely to be the death knell for his legal career.  

Let us not forget that Mr Barr and Shane Rattenbury, the ACT Attorney General both stood behind Mr Drumgold in December of last year and offered their full support. By the time the inquiry was midway through, the AG and Mr Barr refused to comment further.  It should also not be forgotten that it was Mr Barr’s Government that appointed Mr Drumgold to the position of DPP in the first place.

Blind Freddy knows that Mr Drumgold performed abysmally when giving evidence at the inquiry.   His cross-examination could best be described as a massacre.  Amongst other things, his evidence confirmed systematic failures within his office, particularly in relation to disclosure of evidence.  It was abundantly clear that Mr Drumgold did not properly understand his duty of disclosure as a prosecutor.  What is less clear is how many other cases that has infected and how that lack of understanding has filtered through the DPP with him at the top.

Rumours have been circulating amongst the ACT legal profession for weeks about the likely contents of Mr Sofronoff’s report and his recommendations.  It is expected that the report will recommend that Mr Drumgold be removed from office as the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions.  Other rumours suggest it may even be recommended that Mr Drumgold be struck off the Roll of Lawyers, which, if true, would be extraordinary.  If true, it is imperative that the public be told immediately.

As a result of what has come out of the inquiry so far, the ACT, a relatively small jurisdiction, has become the laughing stock of the national legal profession.  Every day that the Government sits on the report is another day that is missed in starting the journey in restoring public faith in the ACT Criminal Justice System.  The ACT Government must act swifty in releasing the report and start restoring our reputation.  The ACT Criminal Justice System has the potential to be a beacon of progressiveness and fairness.  We have a greater percentage of female judicial officers than any other jurisdiction, we are one of only two jurisdictions to have a human rights act and in the last week we saw the appointment of the first indigenous judge to a Court of Superior Record.

Whatever the report actually contains, it is clear the Mr Drumgold cannot (and should not) return to his position as ACT Director of Public Prosecutions.  The first step in fixing this mess and going some way to restoring public faith in the ACT Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the ACT Criminal Justice System more broadly will be appointing an external (and wholly independent) replacement as Director of Public Prosecutions.  Someone who will ensure prosecutions are conducted without emotion, impartially and, most importantly, with fairness – whether you are Bruce Lehrmann or Joe Schmo.