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Higgins’ support person fronts Lehrmann inquiry

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates (right) acted as a support person for Brittany Higgins.

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates (right) acted as a support person for Brittany Higgins. Photo: AAP

Tensions between the right to the presumption of innocence and support for someone who purports to be a victim of crime are under the microscope at an inquiry into the criminal justice system’s response to Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation.

Ms Higgins alleges she was raped inside a ministerial office at Parliament House by her former colleague Bruce Lehrmann after a night out.

Mr Lehrmann has always denied the allegation.

ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner Heidi Yates fronted the inquiry on Thursday.

Ms Yates acted as a support person for Ms Higgins during the investigation and trial at the request of the former Liberal staffer.

Counsel assisting the inquiry Erin Longbottom told chair Walter Sofronoff Ms Yates had attracted public criticism for her public support of Ms Higgins.

Ms Longbottom highlighted Ms Yates’ “conspicuous” presence with Ms Higgins outside court when she gave a statement after Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct.

“It has been suggested that the actions of Ms Yates at a time when there was a fresh trial had the propensity to affect the presumption of innocence to which Mr Lehrmann was entitled,” Ms Longbottom said.

Prosecutors ultimately dropped the charge against Mr Lehrmann due to fears about the impact a second trial would have on Ms Higgins’ mental health.

Ms Yates told the inquiry her statutory functions as commissioner were dictated under the Victims of Crime Act.

“Fundamentally, when assessing a client’s eligibility for services, we operate from a starting point where we accept the information a client gives us unless it is clearly inaccurate or we receive credible information from another source that it is inaccurate,” she said.

“We start from a position of belief … in practice, it would be impossible to run a victims’ support service in any other way.”

Ms Longbottom said while a “victim of crime” was not defined it was considered to be a “person who plausibly claims to be a victim of crime”.

But this had implications for presumption of innocence entitlements.

She highlighted the tensions between Ms Yates being in a role that operated within the human rights commission, and the presumption of innocence being a human right.

– AAP

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