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Tuesday, 8 August 2023

Statement on the Sofronoff Report

The ACT Law Society acknowledges the findings published yesterday of the Board of Inquiry led by Mr Walter Sofronoff KC into the criminal justice system in the ACT and the ACT Government’s interim response.

As the peak body for solicitors in the ACT, we recognise that ongoing scrutiny of the ACT’s justice processes is important to ensure the administration of justice in the ACT remains just and fair, and that existing checks and balances are working effectively.

We acknowledge the serious questions raised in the report about the conduct of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the context of the trial R v Lehrmann, and other findings about gaps in policies and processes and their impact on that trial and more broadly on the administration of the criminal justice system in the ACT.

The Society welcomes the government’s interim response agreeing in full or in principle to each of the recommendations made by Mr Sofronoff. Implementation of the recommendations will be an important step to renew confidence in the ACT criminal justice system by ensuring that appropriate systems, policies and procedures are in place to address the issues identified in the report. There are clear lessons that can be learnt and an opportunity to implement more robust processes and procedures across criminal justice agencies.

The report identifies instances where the intense media, political and community interest in the trial led to pressure on key players, resulting in errors of judgement or in decisions made in haste, and this translated to extra demand on the criminal justice system itself. This is deeply concerning at a broad level, but also because of the direct impact this had on participants in the process. It highlights the importance of our independent justice system and the need to be constantly vigilant to maintain its effectiveness and credibility.

A number of recommendations have been made and accepted by the government with respect to investigative and evidentiary policies and processes, which seem practical and reasonable. There are also recommendations for law reform in some areas, which the Society looks forward to being consulted on in due course.

An area that is not addressed in the recommendations but that some of the findings and commentary in the report support, is consideration of the adequacy of current training processes and decision-making frameworks within the Office of the DPP. To the extent that the report criticises the conduct, decisions and objectivity of the DPP, there may be an opportunity to review the guidance, training and mentorship available to prosecutors and ensure that at key points prosecutors are required to check their objectivity (with themselves and peers).

We will continue to work closely with our legal and justice colleagues to promote confidence in the ACT criminal justice system and uphold the standards for legal practitioners in the ACT.