Brittany Higgins broke down and had a panic attack in a court bathroom when she found out the trial against her alleged rapist Bruce Lehrmann had been abandoned, an inquiry has heard.
Heidi Yates, the ACT victims of crime commissioner, told a Board of Inquiry on Thursday that she was deeply concerned about Ms Higgins’ welfare on October 27 – when Mr Lehrmann’s trial was scrapped due to misconduct by a juror.
Then a parliamentary staffer, Ms Higgins alleged Mr Lehrmann raped her inside a minister’s office in Parliament House in March 2019, an allegation which rocked the political world.
He denies the allegations and has always maintained his innocence.
Ms Yates acted as Ms Higgins’ support person before and during the trial in the ACT Supreme Court last year, and publicly supported her outside court evert day – in full view of photographers and television cameras.
Erin Longbottom – the counsel assisting the inquiry – on Thursday asked Ms Yates how she came to stand next to Ms Higgins when she delivered an emotional speech outside court following the collapse of the trial.
The speech was later referred to the Australian Federal Police due to potential contempt issues, pending a retrial. However, the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold dropped the charge completely on December 2.
‘She was not at her best and I stayed outside the room to give her time to speak with her loved ones, and to be frank to settle myself,’ ACT victims of crime commissioner, Heidi Yates, said of Ms Higgins (pictured)
Ms Yates told the inquiry the speech was drafted in the weeks prior by Ms Higgins and her solicitor Leon Zwier in the event of an acquittal or a conviction. They had not prepared for a mistrial, but read the same speech regardless.
The victims advocate said she was copied in to those emails, and believed Mr Drumgold knew Ms Higgins wanted to make a speech outside court.
Ms Yates told the inquiry that she stood by Ms Higgins’ side throughout the speech because she was concerned for her welfare, rather than the contents of the prepared statement.
When Ms Longbottom asked why she was so concerned for the complainant, Ms Yates detailed the moments leading up to the mistrial in extreme detail.
Ms Longbottom said: ‘You attended court that morning with Ms Higgins and you were present when the jury was discharged.’
Ms Yates said ‘yes’.
Ms Longbottom asked: ‘Were you present for the entirely of the hearing in court that morning?’
Ms Yates said she was not because, when Chief Justice Lucy McCallum told the court she would discharge the jury, Ms Higgins’ started having breathing difficulties.
Then a parliamentary staffer, Ms Higgins alleged Mr Lehrmann (pictured) raped her inside a minister’s office in Parliament House in March 2019, an allegation which rocked the political world
‘I could hear the change in her breathing and then she said “I have to go”, and I’m not a medical practitioner but I believed that she was having a panic attack.
‘I was next to her so I got up and she was in front of me and I guided her to the bathroom – once inside she became very distressed.’
Ms Yates said they were in the bathroom for about 15 minutes, during which time Ms Higgins moved into a stall in a state of extreme distress.
‘I was keen to give her privacy but I was verbally checking on her and trying to keep an ear out to the door, but it took a considerable amount of time for Ms Higgins to settle,’ she recalled.
By the time Ms Higgins had settled, the hearing was over.
Ms Yates took Ms Higgins into the remote witness room, where she normally watched the trial from rather than sitting in the public gallery, where she was surrounded by Mr Zwier, her friend Emma Webster, and partner David Sharaz.
She recalled being in the remote witness room for about 20 minutes, during which time she began ‘ferrying glasses of water and cups of tea’ to Ms Higgins to try and calm her – she noted shaking hands and unsteady breathing.
‘She was not at her best and I stayed outside the room to give her time to speak with her loved ones, and to be frank to settle myself,’ she said.
‘It had been an extremely stressful couple of months, and an 18 month period of intensive involvement in an extraordinary matter. What happened indicated the mistrial, which meant [the trial] may need to be heard all over again.
‘I was primarily concerned about Ms Higgins’ distress, as described, which caused us to leave the courtroom. I was very concerned about Ms Higgins, as in the past a change or an update had caused her to be very unwell quite quickly.’
Heidi Yates (pictured), the ACT victims of crime commissioner, told a Board of Inquiry on Thursday that she was deeply concerned about Ms Higgins’ welfare on October 27 – when Mr Lehrmann’s trial was scrapped due to misconduct by a juror
Ms Yates said it was her responsibility to make sure Ms Higgins made it safely back to her accommodation because ‘she was clearly not OK’.
Ms Longbottom then talked about Ms Higgins speech outside the court, and asked Ms Yates if she was aware of the context of that speech.
‘I was copied into correspondence with her lawyer and it contained drafts of the statement,’ she said.
Ms Longbottom continued: ‘Were you alive to the possibility that a speech Ms Higgins would give would speak to the truth of the allegations Ms Higgins made against Mr Lehrmann?’
She replied: ‘At that point, it was not on my mind, I recognise with hindsight it could have been, but I was ready to make arrangements to return Ms Higgins to her accommodation during a very stressful period of time.’
Ms Yates said she facilitated the speech, meaning she asked court sheriffs where Ms Higgins was allowed to stand if she were to make a statement outside court.
She told the inquiry: ‘Someone said she wanted to make a statement outside court, I wasn’t focused on what she may or may not say.’
Ms Longbottom then asked: ‘But would you accept that if Ms Higgins made a statement about the truth of the allegations, it may be problematic as the victims of crime commissioner to stand next to her publicly?’
Ms Yates replied: ‘I can honestly say I did not consider that on the day.’
She said Ms Higgins asked her to stand by her side during the speech, which Ms Yates did because she was worried.
‘She was not looking well – distressed, shaking hands, should she choose to pause outside court that she might have a panic attack or collapse, and those welfare matters were at the forefront of my mind,’ Ms Yates explained.
When asked whether she was aware about the contents of the speech, Ms Yates said ‘I had been copied into several emails.’
‘Her lawyer had been working on that statement and Mr Zwier had contact with DPP that Ms Higgins was intending to give a statement, and I was very grateful Mr Zwier was there.’
The inquiry is now formally over and a report will be prepared into how the case was handled.