The accusations of sexual assault levelled against Bruce Lehrmann by complainant Brittany Higgins over many years led to one of the most high-profile prosecutions in Australian history, resulting in the annihilation of the former’s reputation and destruction of his life.
The case went to trial, and the effective cross-examination of the complainant led many – including members of the jury – to have doubts about the versions of the events she gave to mainstream media shows such as 60 minutes, for a price.
Ms Higgins’ cross-examination raised numerous valid points which even her most ardent supporters could not entirely ignore; points which resulted in the jury being unable to reach a verdict despite days of deliberation, despite being exposed like everyone else to years of one-sided reporting.
The trial was ultimately aborted because a juror had the audacity to engage in the criminal offence of juror misconduct by bringing a research paper about sexual assault into the jury deliberation room – a document which was discovered by a Sheriffs officer who was tidying up.
The complainant took to the podium outside the courtroom to make statements immediately after the trial was aborted despite the judge directing her not to do so.
She was not charged with contempt of court despite her blatant contravention of court orders.
In the eyes of many, Ms Higgins’ actions are not only unsavoury, they are an attempt to bully the public into believing her claims and silence any contrary views.
Over and above that, her relentless pursuit of attention despite court orders has and should be seen as a crime.
Destroy a life, and move on as a hero
In any event, the prosecution of Mr Lehrmann is a textbook example of how an accusation can destroy a person’s life despite the supposed presumption of innocence we have in our society, while making a celebrity of a complainant.
After the dismissal of the jury, the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions found that it was not in the public interest to pursue a second trial, specifically citing concerns for the well-being of Ms Higgins – not anything to do with Mr Lehrmann.
Mr Lehrmann could never receive a fair trial
It would be difficult to argue that Mr Lehrmann could have ever received a fair trial given the interviews by Ms Higgins and loudmouthed celebrities like Channel 10 presenter Lisa Wilkinson, flouted court orders by marketing the complainant’s case to millions of viewers during her Logie’s acceptance speech just days before the trial was initially listed. Radio personalities Brendan Jones and Amanda Keller – aka ‘Jonesy and Amanda’ jumped on the bandwagon the morning after Wilkinson’s speech, praising her for ‘speaking out’.
Mind you, Channel 10 quickly got behind Ms Wilkinson despite her conduct, going so far to hire a top defamation lawyer and threatening legal proceedings against anyone making disparaging statements against her; yes, that’s right disparaging statements against the woman who flouted court orders and made highly prejudicial statements against a defendant in an upcoming trial to millions.
Even then prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, chimed in, stating in parliament, “I am sorry. We are sorry. I am sorry to Ms Higgins for the terrible things that took place here.” By making that statement, the leader of the nation assumed the truth of the complainant’s allegations, presuming the guilt who had not been tried in a court of law, let alone found guilty.
As a side-note, this is the same PM that leapt to the defence of his Attorney-General Christian Porter – a man who had also been accused of sexual assault. In that case, Morrison stood by Porter, emphasising that he is innocent until proven guilty, refusing to sack him and stating that the rule of law must prevail in a democracy.
Despite all of the negative publicity against Mr Lehrmann, the A.C.T. Supreme Court refused all applications made by his defence lawyers for a ‘permanent stay of proceedings’; an application based on the fact he could never be tried fairly given all of the negative publicity against him.
A permanent stay is essentially where a case stops in its tracks because proceeding would result in a miscarriage of justice.
For her part, Ms Higgins proved herself to be not just outspoken but litigious by commencing defamation proceedings against her former employer Senator Linda Reynolds for calling her a ‘lying cow’. According to media sources, that dispute was settled out of court.
A trigger for reform
All of that said, the claims of Ms Higgins did spark a number of inquiries into the ‘toxic’ workplace culture within Federal Parliament.
It also contributed to interest in rallies adopting the #metoo movement and started a wider social conversation around sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the right of women to feel safe at work, at home, and within the community.
Indeed, Ms Higgins has become the ‘poster woman’ of the movement in Australia, despite her claims never being legally substantiated unlike a number of defendants in the United States.
What happens next?
Mr Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence.
He is now free to get on with his life. It has been reported that he has engaged a specialist defamation lawyer and is considering taking legal action against several media outlets and is also considering an unfair dismissal claim over his termination as a Liberal staff member.
In terms of investigating the matters surrounding Mr Lehrmann’s prosecution, no person has been held to account for contempt of court or for juror misconduct.
Quite to the contrary, the only thing that appears to be looked at is whether the police pressured the ACT’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, not to pursue a second trial of Mr Lehrmann.
That inquiry is expected to deliver its final report by the middle of this year.
The full scope of inquiry is yet to be officially announced, but it will be tasked with considering the engagement between the ACT director of public prosecutions (DPP) and the ACT police, as well as “aspects” of their conduct.
The inquiry will have powers similar to that of a Royal Commission, and will be able to hold private and public hearings.
The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity is already examining the police investigation, following a complaint made by Ms Higgins when police sent her counselling notes and other sensitive information to Mr Lehrmann’s legal team.
The inquiry is an unusual move by a state authority.
Meanwhile, those who acted against the interests of Mr Lehrmann go untouched and the man himself has had his reputation and his life destroyed, in a nation where there is meant to be a presumption of innocence.