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Judge rules on Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

The Federal Court has ruled on whether Bruce Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins in Parliament House.

user iconNaomi Neilson 15 April 2024 The Bar
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Justice Michael Lee has found that, on the balance of probabilities, Lehrmann raped Higgins in 2019 after a night of drinking at Canberra hotspots.

“Lehrmann has now been found, at the civil standard of proof, to engage in a great wrong. It follows Ms Higgins has been proven to be a victim of sexual assault,” he said.

Lehrmann was not criminally convicted.


In a lengthy summary on Monday (15 April), Justice Lee rejected Lehrmann’s evidence and found he lured Higgins back to Parliament House with the intention to keep drinking.

Once there, Lehrmann engaged in sexual activity with Higgins and “did not care one way or another” whether she consented.

Given her state of mind and her level of intoxication, Justice Lee found she could not have consented. He also found she could not have told Lehrmann “no” as she said she did.

Although Higgins’ evidence was found to be dishonest in some parts, Justice Lee said her account of the rape was “credible and had a ring of truth”.

The findings mean Network Ten and The Project host Lisa Wilkinson succeeded in their truth defence.

However, Justice Lee also found Network Ten’s reporting fell short of reasonable standards because they ignored “flashing warning lights” in Higgins’ accounts and had a “lack of curiosity” about investigating parts of her evidence.

This evidence included a photograph of a bruise Higgins claimed was caused by Lehrmann on the night of the alleged rape.

In his summary, Justice Lee said both Lehrmann’s and Higgins’ evidence was “unsatisfactory” and that “one must reject everything they say” in favour of contemporaneous material.

Although Lehrmann was not found to be a compulsive liar as the counsel for the applicants submitted, Justice Lee said he could not trust Lehrmann was telling the truth unless it was a “deliberate admission”.

Lehrmann made comments in a media interview about his attraction to Higgins, only to backtrack this in court by saying it was the same as if he were attracted “to anyone else in the courtroom irrespective of gender”.

Justice Lee said this was “as disconcerting as it was unconvincing”.

The judge added that Lehrmann gave a “litany of false evidence”, including in his accounts of how he came to be at Parliament House and why Higgins was with him.

Where Lehrmann’s untruths were “all over the shop” and was “disorganised lying”, Justice Lee said Higgins’ untruths were “quite organised and had a common thread”.

Justice Lee found there were inconsistencies with some facts in Higgins’ evidence, including the photograph of the bruise.

This was shown to journalists.

“As we know, the original photograph was not mentioned or provided to the AFP [despite a meeting with them days later],” Justice Lee said.

Justice Lee said out-of-court representations made by Higgins in 2019 were not inconsistent with a sexual assault victim, but others made in 2021 and beyond were “false”.

He added there were examples of Higgins making accusations because it “suited her to make it”.

As for Wilkinson, Justice Lee said her career meant she could give “polished and articulated evidence”, but these skills were “regrettably not employed” in the witness box.

“Some aspects of her evidence … caused me some concern,” Justice Lee said.

Lehrmann alleged The Project interview conveyed defamatory meanings, including that he raped Higgins in former defence minister Linda Reynolds’ office.

A rape trial was held in 2022 but abandoned in December. There have been no criminal findings made against Lehrmann.

Security footage captured Lehrmann and Higgins walking into Parliament House after drinking at The Dock and 88mph.

In his evidence to the Federal Court, Lehrmann claimed he and Higgins went to Parliament House because he heard information about the Defence Department’s failed submarine deal with France.

Dr Matthew Collins, appearing on behalf of Network Ten, said this contradicted earlier evidence from Lehrmann that he was spending time with aides-de-camp, who he described as “low-level” administrators and “handbag carriers”.

Higgins said she was “very, very inebriated” and could only remember waking up to Lehrmann raping her.

She told the Federal Court she decided to talk to media because of reporting about Christian Porter’s rape allegations. Porter has denied all allegations.

“It was the trigger point, and I couldn’t be silent anymore,” Higgins said.

More to come.