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The former Coalition minister at the centre of the Brittany Higgins saga has accused Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus of denying her funding for legal assistance throughout the inquiry into Bruce Lehrmann’s trial for political reasons.

Liberal senator Linda Reynolds said she was left prejudiced when she wasn’t legally represented while ACT top prosecutor Shane Drumgold raised suspicion of a political conspiracy to derail the case, after she asked the government to foot the bill for a barrister for the public inquiry in a request Dreyfus later refused.

Linda Reynolds has accused Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus of prejudice over legal funding for the Lehrmann inquiry.Credit: Mick Tsikas

Reynolds, as defence industry minister at the time, was the boss of Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins when the latter alleged she had been raped by Lehrmann in her ministerial office.

He pleaded not guilty in March 2019 in a criminal trial that was aborted in October 2022 due to juror misconduct. A retrial was scrapped in December due to Higgins’ mental health. Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence.

The ACT government launched an inquiry, led by Walter Sofronoff KC, into the handling of the trial following a public fallout between Drumgold and police. It is due to hand down its findings by the end of this month.

Reynolds was granted public funding for responding to two subpoenas from the inquiry and hired a solicitor to monitor proceedings.

But she said Dreyfus had no justification to “personally pick and choose what parts of eligible legal assistance I receive” during the inquiry, in which her name was brought up persistently over several days.

“The matter is either eligible or not. It appears to me that his approach is punitive and a continuation of Labor’s politicisation of this matter,” Reynolds said.

“[The attorney-general’s] decision placed me in a very difficult position and at a disadvantage in that I was not able to be legally represented before the inquiry without the risk of my family having to pay for this representation ourselves. This caused me significant prejudice,” she said.

A spokesperson for the attorney-general said Dreyfus approved funding for legal costs in regard to the subpoenas, and that “Senator Reynolds’ applications were dealt with in accordance with the Parliamentary Business Resources Regulations”.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’s office said Reynolds was approved for assistance with two subpoenas.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Reynolds said her request for assistance for the hearings was made on the second day of the public hearings.

In a May 30 letter, on the second last day of the scheduled hearing period, Dreyfus refused assistance for Reynolds’ ongoing involvement, saying while some issues in the probe related to Reynolds’ former ministerial duties, “other issues … could relate to your actions that are unrelated to your former ministerial duties”.

Reynolds said that given the matters before the inquiry related to her time as a government minister, Commonwealth assistance for her legal fees should have been provided under the regulations, which say a person who has been a minister may be given legal costs for an inquiry into matters involving them.

“The only reason I, my family and my staff have been consumed and damaged over the past 27 months is that my name was on the ministerial door that two staff accessed unauthorised and after hours,” she said.

During the trial, Drumgold accused Reynolds of trying to coach the defence after she texted a suggested line of inquiry to Lehrmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow SC, and also referred to her conduct in a November letter in which he called for an inquiry to occur.

She was also at the centre of one of the inquiry’s most dramatic moments when Drumgold, in evidence he later retracted, suggested there had been a political conspiracy afoot to derail the case, prompting Reynolds and Liberal senator Michaelia Cash – also a witness in the trial – to accuse him of making baseless claims.

“The serious allegation that I had participated in such a conspiracy and had acted in a manner so as to pervert the course of justice remained unchallenged, and would have remained unchallenged but for the intervention of Mr Sofronoff KC,” Reynolds said.

“In addition, on 16 May 2023, evidence about me was also given during a confidential hearing that was not livestreamed. As I did not have leave to appear at the inquiry, there was no way for me to know what evidence was given during the closed hearing.”

Labor and the Coalition have attacked one another over their handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Reynolds said Dreyfus should have recused himself from deciding on her legal funding given he had in opposition spoken in support of Higgins on the day of the March 4 Justice.

Reynolds confirmed she was considering referring the government’s legal settlement of Higgins’ civil claim against the Commonwealth to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, having previously complained of being barred from participating in the mediation.

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