Legal expert calls for potential Reynolds vs Higgins defamation trial to be live-streamed from WA court

Tim Clarke
The Nightly
Brittany Higgins  arrives at the David Malcolm Justice Centre.
Brittany Higgins arrives at the David Malcolm Justice Centre. Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

The latest looming Brittany Higgins trial — involving her former boss Linda Reynolds suing her for defamation — should also be live-streamed by WA’s Supreme Court, a media law expert says.

Late July is firming as the date for yet another legal showdown stemming from Ms Higgins’ allegation that she was raped by colleague Bruce Lehrmann in the Canberra parliamentary office of Senator Reynolds in 2019.

She made that allegation two years later, in a Network Ten interview with Lisa Wilkinson on The Project.

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And three years after that, earlier this month, a Federal Court judge ruled that on the evidence before him — and on the balance of probabilities — that rape did occur.

The bombshell ruling by Justice Michael Lee, live-streamed to thousands as the trial had been, vindicated Ms Higgins’ claim she was attacked by Mr Lehrmann — leaving him with a likely legal bill in the millions.

But the other central claim made in The Project episode — that forces within the Liberal Party worked to cover-up the attack, and forced Ms Higgins to choose between her career and justice — was debunked by Justice Lee.

Senator Reynolds claimed that as a victory and vindication of her consistent claims that no cover-up had occurred.

“For three years I have endured intense public scrutiny, vilification, vile trolling and have been demonised as the villain in a story of a political cover-up I have always known to be untrue,” she said.

“To say I am pleased with the findings … would be an understatement. I remain committed to fully vindicating my reputation.”

That attempted vindication is also being sought through her own defamation claims, against Ms Higgins and her fiance David Sharaz, over various of their social media posts in 2022 and 2023.

Mediation in that action — ordered by a judge to take place face-to-face — has seemingly failed. Leaving the listed six-week trial as a likelihood.

That would inevitably see Ms Higgins give evidence in court again — while Ms Reynolds and Mr Sharaz would take to a witness stand for the first time to give their evidence about their recollections about events from 2019 to now.

And if that trial goes ahead, Associate Professor Johan Lidberg, head of journalism at Melbourne’s Monash University, said the court should broadcast it live, as was the case in the Federal Court.

“I think cases like this are an excellent opportunity for courts to educate the public on how the justice system works and increase trust in the independence and robustness of the justice system,” Professor Lidberg said.

“The Lehrmann defamation case, I think, was invaluable in this respect.

“It clearly illustrated that you need to carefully consider the consequences of taking a case to open court. In this I think the Federal Court did us all a service in live-streaming the proceedings, especially the judgment.

“Mediation and settlement should always be the first option in defamation cases ... taking defamation cases to open court can be risky and expensive, regardless which side you’re on.

“So it would be in the greatest public interest for the WA Supreme Court to live-stream the court proceedings and the judgment should the case go to court.”

The WA Supreme Court does have the capacity to live-stream trials, and has done before, with the rules stating that the decision “should be exercised in the interests of justice and giving due weight to the open justice principle”.

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