analysis

Bruce Lehrmann scores historic own goal in defamation case of the century

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Bruce Lehrmann emerges from court with his reputation in tatters.
Bruce Lehrmann emerges from court with his reputation in tatters. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

It was with “white hot anger” that Bruce Lehrmann sued a television network to salvage his reputation.

He left court on Monday afternoon a man with no honour: found by Federal Court Justice Michael Lee to be a liar and a rapist who had plied his junior colleague Brittany Higgins with so much alcohol that she was incapable of consenting to the sexual intercourse he continually denied took place.

Lehrmann had earlier faced trial for the rape of Ms Higgins but escaped conviction after jury misconduct caused the matter to be abandoned. The charges were not pursued further because of Ms Higgins’ precarious mental state.

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Now, after he chased financial restitution for the damage he said had been inflicted on him by a 2021 report on The Project, Mr Lehrmann has scored a monumental own goal.

“Having escaped the lion’s den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of coming back for his hat,” Justice Lee said in the Federal Court as he handed down his judgment.

Justice Lee found that Mr Lehrmann had sex with his junior colleague, a highly intoxicated Ms Higgins whom he had earlier plied with drinks, in the Parliament House office of their boss, then-defence minister Linda Reynolds.

So drunk was she, he said, that she was “not fully aware” of her surroundings and not able to give consent.

“Mr Lehrmann was hell-bent on having sex with a woman he found attractive and in his pursuit of that he did not care one way or the other whether Ms Higgins consented or not,” Justice Lee said.

“Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins.”

Earlier, there was a fitting start to the climax of the most watched court case Sydney has seen in years which drew 26,000 viewers on the YouTube livestream and a packed public gallery.

Just as Justice Lee was getting into the reasons for his 324-page judgment, the livestream audio collapsed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it happened as he was labelling the case an “omnishambles”.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 15: Sue Chrysanthou SC hugs Lisa Wilkinson as they emerge from court on April 15, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. Justice Michael Lee has ruled in favour of Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson in Bruce Lehrmann's defamation case. The case arose from allegations aired on 'The Project' news program, in which Brittany Higgins claimed she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House. Lehrmann, who denied any sexual contact with Ms Higgins, alleged defamation by the broadcast, despite not being explicitly named. The court found that Lehrmann had raped Brittany Higgins on the balance of probabilities.  (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)
Sue Chrysanthou SC hugs Lisa Wilkinson as they emerge from court. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

What a perfect term for the startlingly messy affair that wound in some of Australia’s biggest names and hard-hitting lawyers who duked it out over six weeks of hearings that became a defacto rape trial.

Ahead of proceedings opening, lawyers for opposing parties — who between them have clocked up a reported $10 million in legal fees — chatted quietly at the front of the court.

Lisa Wikinson’s high-powered defamation barrister, Sue Chrysanthough SC, insisted Matt Collins KC, acting for Ten, give her a quick hug before it commenced shortly after 10.15am.

For the daily court watchers of the Lehrmann soap opera in the public gallery in Court 1 at Sydney’s Federal Court, the fascination with Ms Wilkinson’s wardrobe remains a constant after revelations during the trial about her hefty clothing allowance from Channel 10, for whom she’s not appeared on screen since November 2022.

For judgment day — a day in which she would be vindicated — she wore a cream pantsuit. Mr Lehrmann, who arrived at court a few minutes before Ms Wilkinson, wore a black suit with a white shirt and dark patterned tie.

They sat among a phalanx of lawyers on opposite sides at the front of the court as Justice Lee laid out the main reasons for his judgment in the multimillion-dollar trial. Mr Lehrmann took copious notes on a yellow legal pad while Ms Wilkinson watched impassively through most of the judgment.

There were chuckles from the gallery as Justice Lee made asides about Tinder, the difference between a “pash” and a kiss, the fact “nothing good happens after 2 o’clock in the morning” and some “unsettling” evidence from Mr Lehrmann that he found many people at court attractive.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 15: Bruce Lehrmann emerges from court on April 15, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. Justice Michael Lee has ruled in favour of Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson in Bruce Lehrmann's defamation case. The case arose from allegations aired on 'The Project' news program, in which Brittany Higgins claimed she was raped by a colleague in Parliament House. Lehrmann, who denied any sexual contact with Ms Higgins, alleged defamation by the broadcast, despite not being explicitly named. The court found that Lehrmann had raped Brittany Higgins on the balance of probabilities.  (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)
Bruce Lehrmann is followed by a media scrum after emerging from court. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

Justice Lee saved some of his best zingers for excoriating criticisms of Mr Lehrmann’s motivations on the night of the alleged rape, saying he wanted to continue being intimate with Ms Higgins after the pair had kissed earlier.

He said with so many versions of why the pair had gone to Parliament House on the night of the alleged rape, it was necessary to go back to their first evidence, that they had shared an Uber home and decided at Mr Lehrmann’s urging to go to the office to drink some whisky.

“He was a 23-year-old male cheating on his girlfriend having just hooked up with a woman he found sexually attractive,” he said.

“Human experience suggests” what he wanted to happen next, he said.

What was on his mind, Justice Lee said, was not to work on the French submarine contracts Mr Lehrmann had tried to claim in his “Walter Mitty-like imaginings” was the reason that he had returned to Parliament House.

Ms Higgins, he said, had different motivations, as an inebriated junior staffer whom her boss was treating well after a period of being rude to her.

Brittany Higgins (left) departs the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney, Friday, December 1, 2023. Lehrmann is suing Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson in the Federal Court, claiming their interview with Brittany Higgins on The Project in February 2021 defamed him. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING
Brittany Higgins after testifying in the defamation case in December 2023. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

Justice Lee said of the trial that “the endless controversy has become a cause celebre” for many parties, hijacked by ideologues on all sides. He said observers had a “Rorschach test”-like ability to choose what truth they wanted to see.

“It’s a singular case...It might be more fitting to describe it as an omnishambles,” he said.

“For more than a few people this dispute has become a proxy for broader cultural and political conflicts,” he said.

He said the case was “not as straightforward as it appeared” given it “hinges on the truth of a sexual assault behind closed doors”.

“Only one man and one woman know the truth,” he said.

He described them as two people “who are in different ways unreliable historians” and “young and immature staffers” at the time of the events in question.

“Distinguishing between a false narrative and a lie can be difficult,” he said.

“To remark that Bruce Lehrmann was a poor witness is an exercise in understatement,” he said, but he added that Ms Higgins “was also an unsatisfactory witness”.

He said Ms Higgins’ actions had been impacted by those of her boyfriend, David Sharaz, who had acted as her media minder and wanted to push the story of a “cover-up” by her former employers.

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