Federal Court Justice Michael Lee’s brutal assessment of main players in Bruce Lehrmann defamation case

The Nightly
4 Min Read
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.
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. Credit: Don Arnold/Getty Images

Federal Court Justice Michael Lee had plenty to say about each of the main players as he delivered his 324-page judgment in the Bruce Lehrmann defamation case on Monday.

Read the highlights below:

BRUCE LEHRMANN

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“To remark that Mr Lehrmann was a poor witness is an exercise in understatement.

“Put bluntly, he was a 23-year-old male cheating on his girlfriend, having just ‘hooked up’ with a woman he found sexually attractive. Human experience suggests what he then wanted to happen is not exactly shrouded in mystery.

“I am satisfied that it is more likely than not that Mr Lehrmann’s state of mind was such that he was so intent upon gratification to be indifferent to Ms Higgins’ consent, and hence went ahead with sexual intercourse without caring whether she consented.

“There is a significant difference between the distortions of Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins. In the case of Mr Lehrmann, the untruths were all over the shop (being a form of what might be called ‘disorganised lying’)...”

“... Mr Lehrmann was hell-bent on having sex with a woman he found sexually attractive, had been mutually passionately kissing and touching, had encouraged to drink, and knew had reduced inhibitions because she was very drunk.

“Mr Lehrmann behaved disgracefully.

“He defended the criminal charge on a false basis, lied to police, and then allowed that lie to go uncorrected before the jury.

“He instructed his unwitting and hence blameless senior counsel to cross-examine a complainant of sexual assault, in two legal proceedings, on a knowingly false premise.

“As a result of the inconclusive criminal trial, Mr Lehrmann remains a man who has not been convicted of any offence, but he has now been found, by the civil standard of proof, to have engaged in a great wrong.

“Mr Lehrmann is not entitled to the vindication of his reputation.

BRITTANY HIGGINS

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins and her former boss Senator Linda Reynolds are in mediation talks in the DMJC in Perth. PIctured - Brittany (blue dress) leaves the DMJC
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

“Ms Brittany Higgins ... was also an unsatisfactory witness who made some allegations that made her a heroine to one group of partisans, but when examined forensically, have undermined her general credibility to a disinterested fact-finder.

“She is someone who has the intense, uncritical support of some but has also been the subject of widespread social media abuse.

“As to reliability, one must not only take account of the well-known general features of human memory, but also the mental state of Ms Higgins and the well-known specific effect of trauma, and in particular sexual assault, on her memory.

“...Ms Higgins has been proven to be a victim of sexual assault.

LISA WILKINSON

Lisa Wilkinson (centre) speaks to the media
A judge said Lisa Wilkinson (centre) took Brittany Higgins' allegations of a cover-up "as a given". Credit: Bianca De Marchi/AAP

“Ms Wilkinson’s evidence did not lack self-assuredness. As one would expect from someone with her professional background, Ms Wilkinson was a polished and articulate witness.

“Regrettably, however, these not inconsiderable skills were often deployed by her in the witness box to advocate for her views

“... Ms Wilkinson was a fourth estate éminence grise with 40 years’ experience – she gave evidence she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016 for, among other things, services to broadcast and print journalism.

“If she had of thought matters through as an experienced journalist, and less as a champion for Ms Higgins, she ought to have known the (Logies) speech was fraught with danger and recognised that lauding a complainant on the eve of a rape trial in the terms she did would be apt to undermine the due administration of justice.

“She was keen to give the speech not because of pressure from her employer ... but because, in the words of Ms Smithies, Ms Wilkinson had become “inextricably intertwined with Ms Higgins” and had provided her with “clear and unequivocal” support for the preceding 18 months.

“The speech was part of a continuum of conduct of Ms Wilkinson celebrating and lending credence to Ms Higgins as a woman of courage whose story must be believed.

FIONA BROWN

Fiona Brown arrives at the Federal Court
Fiona Brown (pictured) pushed back against two ministers wanting to go to the police. Credit: Mick Tsikas/AAP

“She was not someone to speculate or jump to conclusions and I reject any suggestion Ms Higgins expressly said to Ms Brown at either their first or second meeting that she had been raped or sexually assaulted

“She did not draw a definitive conclusion in the light of the ambiguous words used by Ms Higgins – she adopted the more cautious view that sex and something untoward may have happened.

“But what does not reflect caution was standing up to her Minister and the Chief of Staff of another Minister when Ms Brown thought they were intent on protecting their own interests at the expense of allowing a young woman to make her own decision as to whether she would involve the police — even at some risk to her professional career.

“This showed integrity in resisting pressure she subjectively considered inappropriate and evinced concern for the autonomy and welfare of Ms Higgins.

“In these circumstances, to be later vilified as an unfeeling apparatchik willing to throw up roadblocks in covering up criminal conduct at the behest of one’s political overlords must be worse than galling.

TAYLOR AUERBACH

Former Seven network Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach (centre) arrives at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney, Friday, April 5, 2024. The 28-year-old ex-Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann is suing Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over a February 2021 report on The Project during which fellow staffer Brittany Higgins claimed he raped her in a Parliament House office in 2019. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi) NO ARCHIVING
Former Seven network Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

“Mr Auerbach accepted in cross-examination that he “hated” his former colleague and friend, Spotlight producer Mr Steve Jackson (blaming him, ‘in part’, for the fact his contract at the Seven Network was not renewed).

“His resentment was palpable upon viewing the wanton and vaguely disturbing destruction of what appeared to be a perfectly serviceable set of golf clubs.

“It is unnecessary to make factual findings in relation to many aspects of his evidence, but one would generally be cautious in making findings based upon incomplete evidence and resting solely upon the word of a man motivated by such rancour.

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