A fresh push for reforms to make the criminal justice system more accessible to alleged victims of sexual assault is needed in the wake of the decision to drop the retrial of the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins, the Greens say.
Bruce Lehrmann, who pleaded not guilty to a single charge of sexual intercourse without consent, will not face a retrial after the Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold abandoned the case on Friday.
Mr Lehrmann has strenuously denied ever having sex with Ms Higgins.
In a short statement, Mr Drumgold said experts had warned the retrial would pose a risk to Ms Higgins’ life.
“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,” he said
“This has left me no option but to file a notice declining to proceed with the retrial of this matter, which I have done this morning.”
Ms Higgins‘ friend Emma Webster confirmed the former political staffer was receiving treatment in hospital.
Shortly after Mr Drumgold’s announcement, Greens senators Larissa Waters and Sarah Hanson Young shared they would ramp up their push for reforms.
“Many victim-survivors of sexual, family and domestic violence describe the court process as horrific and retraumatising,” they said.
“In light of the strength and resilience Brittany Higgins has shown and the change she has already driven to reform parliamentary culture, the Greens will push anew for this and other procedural protections to be rolled out nationally as a matter of urgency.
“At this time it is important to remember the toll that any sort of criminal proceedings take and the broader impact of intense coverage in deterring people from coming forward.”
The Global Institute of Women’s Leadership, of which Ms Higgins is a member, said the case demonstrated the toll of trials on alleged victims.
“There is a clear need for ongoing law reform and practical changes in both the criminal justice system and the laws, processes and institutions that prohibit workplace harassment and ensure safe, respectful workplaces,” the institute said in a statement.
“The personal price she has paid has been astronomical.”
Foreign Minister Penny Wong was asked to speak about Mr Drumgold’s decision during a press conference on Friday.
“Given the serious health concerns that the DPP referenced today, obviously I’m going to be very cautious about what I say but I want to echo the prosecutor’s comments in recognising the grace, the bravery and the dignity that Miss Higgins has displayed.”
The first trial against Mr Lehrmann was aborted in October after an allegation of jury misconduct.
Under ACT laws, if the retrial was to have gone ahead next year, Ms Higgins could have been forced to testify in person because her initial evidence was given in person in the courtroom.
Only alleged victims who have testified in court from a remote room via audiovisual link can have their recorded evidence replayed in the event of a retrial.
The ACT government is holding consultations to make changes to the rules.
It’s understood the government remains committed to the reform despite the case being dropped on Friday.
The reform would be potentially relevant in up to four matters before the ACT Courts.