According to an inquest, Brittany Higgins collapsed and had a panic attack in a courtroom toilet when she learned the trial of her alleged rapist, Bruce Lehrmann, had been dropped.
Heidi Yates, the ACT’s Crime Victims Commissioner, told a commission of inquiry on Thursday that she was deeply concerned for Ms Higgins’ well-being on October 27 – when Mr Lehrmann’s trial was adjourned on jury misconduct charges.
Then a Parliament staffer, Ms Higgins, alleged that Mr Lehrmann raped her in March 2019 in a minister’s office in Parliament building, an allegation that rocked the political world.
He denies the allegations and has always maintained his innocence.
Ms Yates acted as counsel for Ms Higgins before and during the ACT Supreme Court trial last year and publicly supported her every day outside of court – in front of photographers and television cameras.
Erin Longbottom – the lawyer who was assisting the investigation – asked Ms Yates on Thursday how she came to stand next to Ms Higgins as she delivered an emotional speech in court after the trial failed.
The speech was later referred to the Australian Federal Police pending a retrial on possible allegations of contempt. However, the ACT’s chief prosecutor, Shane Drumgold, dropped the charges entirely on December 2.
“She wasn’t at her best and I stayed outside the room to give her time to talk to loved ones and to be honest, to put my mind at ease,” ACT Crime Victims Commissioner Heidi Yates said of Ms Higgins (in the picture).
Ms Yates told the inquiry that the speech had been drafted in the weeks prior by Ms Higgins and her lawyer Leon Zwier in the event of an acquittal or conviction. They had not prepared for a mistrial, but still read the same speech.
The victim’s lawyer said she was copied into those emails and believed Mr Drumgold knew Ms Higgins wanted to give a speech outside court.
Ms Yates told the Inquiry that she stood by Ms Higgins’s entire speech because she was concerned with her well-being and not with the content of the prepared statement.
When Ms Longbottom asked why she was so concerned about the applicant, Ms Yates described in great detail the moments leading up to the mistrial.
Ms Longbottom said: “You were in court with Ms Higgins that morning and were present when the jury was released.”
Mrs. Yates said “yes”.
Ms Longbottom asked: “Were you present throughout the court hearing that morning?”
Ms Yates said that was not the case because when Chief Justice Lucy McCallum told the court she was dismissing the jury, Ms Higgins developed breathing difficulties.
Then a Parliament staffer, Ms Higgins, claimed that Mr Lehrmann (pictured) raped her in a minister’s office in Parliament House in March 2019, an allegation that 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 doctor, but I thought she was having a panic attack.
“I was next to her so I got up and she was in front of me and I led her into the bathroom — once inside she got very distressed.”
Ms Yates said they spent about 15 minutes in the toilet while Ms Higgins went into a stall in a state of utter despair.
“I was dying to give her privacy but I checked on her verbally and tried to keep an ear to the door but it took Ms. Higgins quite a long time to settle in,” she recalls.
When Ms. Higgins was seated, the hearing was over.
Ms Yates took Ms Higgins to the secluded witness room from where she would normally watch the trial and not sit in the bleachers where she was surrounded by Mr Zwier, her friend Emma Webster and her partner David Sharaz.
She recalled staying in the remote witness room for about 20 minutes, during which time she began bringing “glasses of water and cups of tea” to Ms. Higgins to calm her down – she noticed trembling hands and irregular breathing.
“She wasn’t at her best and I stayed outside of the room to give her time to talk to loved ones and to be honest, to calm myself down,” she said.
“It has been an extremely stressful few months and an 18-month period of intense preoccupation with an extraordinary matter.” What happened indicated the mistrial, which meant [the trial] may need to be heard again.
“I was primarily concerned about Ms. Higgins’ described plight, which caused us to leave the courtroom.” she got very sick pretty quickly.”
Heidi Yates (pictured), the ACT’s Crime Victims Commissioner, told a commission of inquiry on Thursday that she was deeply concerned for the well-being of Ms Higgins on October 27 – when Mr Lehrmann’s trial was called off for a jury’s misconduct became
Ms Yates said it was her responsibility to ensure Ms Higgins got back to her accommodation safely because “she was clearly not feeling well”.
Ms Longbottom then spoke about Ms Higgins’ speech to the court and asked Ms Yates if she was aware of the context of that speech.
“I was copied into correspondence with her attorney and included drafts of the statement,” she said.
Ms Longbottom continued: “Were you aware of the possibility that a speech Ms Higgins would make would reflect the veracity of the allegations made by Ms Higgins against Mr Lehrmann?”
She replied: “It wasn’t on my mind at the time, with hindsight I recognize it could have been, but I was willing to make arrangements to bring Ms Higgins back to her accommodation at a very stressful time.”
Ms Yates said she moderated the speech, meaning she asked the court sheriffs where Ms Higgins could stand if she was making a statement outside the court.
She told the inquest: “Someone said she wanted to testify outside of court, I wasn’t focused on what she might or might not say.”
Ms Longbottom then asked: “But would you accept that as a victim of a crime detective, standing next to her in public could be problematic if Ms Higgins had made a statement as to the veracity of the allegations?”
Ms Yates replied: “I can honestly say I didn’t take that into account on the day.”
She said Ms Higgins asked her to stand by her side during the speech, which Ms Yates did out of fear.
“She was not well – she was distraught, she shook hands. Should she decide to stop outside of court, she could have a panic attack or collapse, and those social issues were paramount to me,” explained Ms Yates.
When asked if she was aware of the content of the speech, Ms Yates replied: “I’ve been copied into several emails.”
“Her lawyer had been working on that statement and Mr Zwier was in touch with DPP that Ms Higgins wished to make a statement and I was very grateful that Mr Zwier was there.”
The investigation is now officially closed and a report on the handling of the case will be prepared.