The Brittany Higgins Saga: Bruce Lehrmann Fails to Clear His Name in Defamation Trial

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The Brittany Higgins Saga: Bruce Lehrmann Fails to Clear His Name in Defamation Trial

Despite not being convicted of any sexual offences, Bruce Lehrmann has now been labelled by a judge of the Federal Court of Australia as more likely than not to be a sexual offender by a following his defamation trial against journalist Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten. 

Justice Michael Lee found that Mr Lehrmann was not defamed by Lisa Wilkinson and Ten during an interview with Brittany Higgins in February 2021. The Project did not name Bruce Lehrmann, and although Justice Michael Lee found that he was identifiable, he has determined he was not defamed.  

A ‘branded’ man 

It is undoubtedly a sour end for Mr Lehrmann in his battle to clear his name.  

He has always steadfastly protested his innocence, going so far as to sue for defamation, only to lose and have the final judgment sprawled across the nation’s media, along with comments from a judge who determined that he was unconcerned about whether Ms Higgins consented to sexual activity in Liinda Reynolds’ office in the early hours of 23 March 2019. 

Justice Michael Lee found that on the balance of probabilities Lehrmann sexually assaulted Higgins on the minister’s couch in Parliament House in 2019, going so far as to say: 

“In summary, I consider it more likely than not in those early hours, after a long night of conviviality and drinking and having successfully brought Ms Higgins back to a secluded place, Mr Lehrmann was hellbent on having sex with a woman he found attractive” and knew was inebriated”.

“He did not care one way or the other whether Ms Higgins understood or agreed to what was going on.”

Civil standard of proof.

This, of course, was not a criminal trial – but civil proceedings where the onus of proof rested on Mr Lehrmann to prove on the balance of probabilities that he was defamed.

The ACT Supreme Court trial during which Bruce Lehrmann faced a single count of sexual intercourse without consent, to which he pleaded not guilty, ended in a mistrial as a result of juror misconduct in November 2021 and prosecutors did not seek a retrial. 

For all intents and purposes, under the law, Mr Lehrmann is not guilty of any crime. 

And it is important to remember that, because, now, in the eyes of the public, after the judgment of the civil case, he is most definitely branded, which could have implications for Mr Lehrmann’s upcoming trial in Toowoomba, Queensland. He has been charged with two counts of rape, which in Queensland is punishable by a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The case is set for a committal hearing in June later this year. The charges relate to an alleged incident in October 2021.

While Justice Lee was also critical of the conduct of Channel Ten’s The Project team, particularly their approach to contacting Mr Lehrmann for their story, saying: “If Network Ten wanted to get in contact with Mr Lehrmann, there were ways of ensuring that contact could be achieved. He was not living the life of a hermit,” this is not necessarily what will be remembered from his judgment.

The impact of media on justice 

Much has been said and reported about the way Channel Ten’s The Project team handled the original story and the bias with which it was presented. 

As this original story, which broke the news of sexual assault allegations in Parliament House, it set the tone in many ways, for subsequent media coverage from most of the mainstream media, as well as the basis of the conversation that took over community forums on social. 

Whether it was responsible journalism, is a matter of opinion. 

What is undeniable is the media furore that followed, playing out in headlines over many months. Coverage so prolific and relentless that it also spawned numerous defamation legal cases.

It certainly has been a case which highlights the fact that the* justice system must, if it is to retain credibility and impartiality, and a reputation for protecting a person’s right to a fair trial, find ways to stop media interference from so heavily swaying public opinion prior to justice being served. 

Closed courtrooms are not necessarily the answer, because whatever measures are put in place to protect those who are innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, must also be balanced with the public’s right to know.  

It’s fair to say that in the Higgins vs Lehrmann saga, there have been no winners. Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann have both been put under incredible strain, their lives irrevocably changed.  

However, there have been several positive outcomes, in particular the case’s impact in highlighting the toxic, booze-fuelled workplace that is Parliament House. Important changes have been made since the allegations first came to light, which will hopefully result in a safer, healthier environment for all employees. 

Brittany Higgin’s story may well have encouraged more victims of sexual assault to come forward. It can only be hoped that they are not deterred by the media circus that this case created. 

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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