‘This is why women pull out of the criminal justice system’: Sally Stevenson

Illawarra Mercury

The decision to discontinue the case against an alleged rapist in a high-profile sexual assault matter is not uncommon, one Illawarra women’s advocate says.

Quite the opposite, Sally Stevenson, the general manager of the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre believes.

The ACT’s Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC announced the move on Friday as Ms Higgins received mental health treatment and support in hospital.

Ms Higgins, a former Liberal Party staffer, accused ex-colleague Bruce Lehrmann of raping her at Parliament House when the pair worked together for Senator Linda Reynolds.

Mr Lehrmann, 27, pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent.

He has always denied engaging in any form of sexual activity with the alleged victim on March 23, 2019, when the pair went back to the minister’s parliamentary suite after a drunken night out.

The public spotlight on Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann was immense when the latter stood trial in October, with Chief Justice Lucy McCallum quipping that journalists were “hanging from the rafters”.

Mr Drumgold SC referred to the intense scrutiny on Friday, when he announced his decision to discontinue the case against Lehrmann.

He made the call after considering what he described as “compelling” medical evidence, which indicated Ms Higgins’ life would be at risk if the case was to continue.

“Whilst the pursuit of justice is essential for both my office and for the community in general, the safety of a complainant in a sexual assault matter must be paramount.

“In light of the compelling, independent medical opinion and balancing all factors, I have made the difficult decision that it is no longer in the public interest to pursue a prosecution at the risk of the complainant’s life.”

He went on to say: “During the investigation and trial as a sexual assault complainant, Ms Higgins has faced a level of personal attack that I have not seen in over 20 years of doing this work.

“She has done so with bravery, grace and dignity, and it is my hope that this will now stop and Ms Higgins will be allowed to heal.”

Ms Stevenson reacted to the news as she suspected many women would.

“I shook my head,” she said. “This is a high profile case, but this is what we see every day.

“When you look at the conviction rate, of charging and of the conviction of alleged sexual assault and assault perpetrators – it’s one per cent.

“And this is why women pull out of the criminal justice system because it is so damaging to them. They are so victimised as a process. They’re the ones that are that are on trial, in effect. And this just demonstrates how writ large, how bad the system is,” Ms Stevenson said.

“This is something that we see over and again, but what’s happened here is how it really exposes how the system is set up.”

Before the decision to discontinue proceedings was taken, Mr Lehrmann had been scheduled to face a retrial starting in February 2023.

The retrial was listed after a rogue juror brought independent research into the jury room during deliberations at the first trial, causing Chief Justice McCallum to declare a mistrial.

Ms Stevenson is unsure whether change will be forthcoming.

“I’m not confident that this will make the change that is required because it’s such a deep cultural revolution that needs to take place.”

Ms Higgins’ friends also issued a statement following the decision.

“The last couple of years have been difficult and unrelenting,” friend Emma Webster said.

“While it’s disappointing the trial has ended this way, Brittany’s health and safety must always come first.”

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