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Canberra Today 8°/14° | Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Judgment looms in Lehrmann defamation case

Bruce Lehrmann will find out this week if his defamation case has been successful. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

By Miklos Bolza  in Sydney

Almost exactly five years after being accused of allegedly raping Brittany Higgins in a Parliament House office, Bruce Lehrmann will learn whether he has been vindicated in a high-cost, high-stakes legal fight to clear his name.

In one of Australia’s highest-profile defamation cases, the 28-year-old battled Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over on-air reports of an alleged rape and the parliamentary cover-up that allegedly ensued.

He is seeking extensive damages, saying those reports have destroyed his reputation.

A judgment will be handed down on Thursday, when the Federal Court will deliver its verdict after weighing up the evidence of the alleged rapist and victim and dozens of other witnesses.

The trial took place in Sydney in December and February, when Justice Michael Lee heard evidence from both Ms Higgins and Lehrmann about what they claimed occurred in the office of Senator Linda Reynolds in Canberra in March 2019.

Ms Higgins said she went drinking with Lehrmann and some colleagues and returned to Parliament House in the early hours of Saturday morning.

She alleged she woke up on Senator Reynolds’ couch to find Lehrmann on top of her and that, despite her protests, he continued with the assault.

A security guard told the court she found Ms Higgins naked and asleep in the office hours after he left.

Lehrmann has consistently claimed nothing sexual happened between him and his then-fellow Liberal staffer, and has consistently denied raping her.

He claims a segment aired on 10’s The Project in February 2021 identified him – despite not naming him specifically – and that it destroyed his reputation by falsely reporting that he raped Ms Higgins.

Ten and Wilkinson have defended the interview, saying it was true and in the public interest because it involved an alleged sexual assault in Parliament House.

During the trial, Justice Lee saw Ms Higgins and Lehrmann undergo aggressive cross-examination.

Both had their credibility successfully attacked.

Lehrmann was caught using different reasons for why he had to return to Parliament House after hours, including that he was dropping documents off and that he had returned to drink whisky.

He told the Federal Court he had gone back to add notes to Question Time folders after receiving information from work colleagues during drinks earlier that night.

It was the first time he was made to give evidence under oath in court as he exercised his right to remain silent during an earlier criminal trial, which was aborted due to juror misconduct.

Ten’s lawyers told the court Lehrmann as a “fundamentally dishonest man” who was prepared to make bizarre, absurd lies in order to further his cause.

Ms Higgins also conceded her versions of events had changed over time, including an admission that a bruise in a photo sent to Ten might not have been caused during the alleged assault.

Most of the arguments from Lehrmann’s legal team centred on Ms Higgins’ claims of a government cover-up to prevent the rape being reported.

Numerous documents and other evidence were used to show Ms Higgins did not experience pressure from her bosses to remain silent about what she claimed occurred.

Lehrmann’s lawyers have accused her of lying to keep her job after being found naked in her workplace.

Other witnesses at the defamation trial included a colleague who said she saw the pair kissing and touching each other before leaving for Parliament House that night.

An English lip-reader, after observing CCTV footage, told the court Lehrmann had been “plying” Ms Higgins with alcohol in a bar.

While the primary defamation claim revolves around whether the rape took place, Justice Lee also needs to consider another option – that Lehrmann and Ms Higgins had consensual sex that night, contrary to both of their testimonies.

Prosecutors did not seek a retrial due to concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health after the initial proceeding was aborted in late 2022.

In ordering damages, Justice Lee will also consider the conduct of Ten and Wilkinson, including a decision to greenlight a speech given by the journalist accepting a silver Logie for The Project segment.

That speech was given days before a criminal trial was due to commence and resulted in the case being postponed.

Lehrmann has settled two other defamation proceedings with news.com.au and the ABC, receiving $445,000 in legal costs.

But his legal bill, should he lose against Ten, will be far higher after a lengthy and hotly contested hearing.

Whoever wins the case on Thursday, it is expected the losing side will file an appeal.

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

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