Key Quotes From Lehrmann v Higgins Defamation Judgement

After years of being dragged through courts, Twitter threads and televisions across Australia, the Lehrmann fiasco has finally reached a modicum of closure. Justice Michael Lee, who referred to the case as “an omnishambles”, found that Bruce Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins in 2019.

A quick recap of events: Lehrmann filed for defamation against Network 10 in February last year, claiming an interview Higgins gave to The Project two years prior had identified him as her alleged rapist. Lehrmann faced a rape trial in 2022, which was dropped due to jury issues and never reopened.

After hearing 24 days of arguments, Justice Michael Lee found that Lehrmann was capable of being identified in The Project’s interview, and was identified by his colleagues in Parliament and Lehrmann’s personal acquaintances as the alleged perpetrator.

However, the judge ruled that the substantial truth defence successfully proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’, that Lehrmann had in fact raped Higgins in 2019, and so cannot contest defamation.

‘On the balance of probabilities’ is an important point here. Because defamation is a civil matter, not a criminal one, the burden of proof is much lower. Unlike Lehrmann’s criminal rape trial, this trial didn’t require defendants to prove to a jury ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that Lehrmann had committed rape.

Ultimately, in the case of this trial the verdict hinged on Justice Lee’s judgement of the creditworthiness of Lehrmann’s version of the events of 2019, as opposed to Higgins’.

The defamation ruling does not mean Lehrmann has been convicted of committing the crime of rape – for that to happen, a second criminal trial on the matter would have to be opened, which many observers believe is unlikely to happen.

“I consider it more likely than not in those early hours [of March 23rd, 2019], Mr Lehrmann was hellbent on having sex with a woman he found attractive,” concluded Lee, “[and] did not care one way or the other whether Ms Higgins understood or agreed to what was going on.”

The full document of Lee’s verdict reveals his contempt for Lehrmann’s behaviour and testimony. Calling Lehrmann a “poor witness”, he said, would be “an exercise in understatement”.

“I would not accept anything [Lehrmann] said except where it amounted to an admission…or was corroborated by a contemporaneous document or a witness whose evidence I accept.”

Lehrmann not only lied, the court saw, but did so in a way that was “all over the shop”. For example, unlike many other rape cases where the accused claims that while sex happened, it was consensual, Lehrmann attempted to claim he and Higgins had never been intimate at all.

Instead, he said he had gone back to Parliament House with her that night to get the keys to his apartment, and prepare briefs for Question Time. These lies were dismissed as “fanciful” by Lee, who noted Lehrmann had been out drinking, was “accompanied by a woman he found attractive”, and “hitherto had demonstrated no outward signs of being a workaholic”.

Nonetheless, Lee was also critical of Brittany Higgins’ conduct. His verdict went to lengths to clarify that any inconsistent behaviour by Higgins in her recount of the original rape was characteristic of rape survivors – not an indication of false narrative. But he admonished Higgins’ allegations that a concerted ‘cover-up’ had ensued in Parliament in the years following, and noted she had “sometimes told untruths when it suited her”.

Network 10 and The Project celebrated the judgement as a vindication of their efforts and of Brittany Higgins, but pointed out the defamation case has shown the difficulties of Australian law when it comes to sharing the stories of sexual assault survivors.

Still, it’s hard not to see some of Higgins’ more questionable actions (like clearing out her phone before handing it to police) as the behaviour of a woman desperate to be heard and believed, in a climate that doesn’t often extend that courtesy to women.

As for Lehrmann, his actions have proven to be nothing less than despicable. After essentially getting away with rape in the original criminal trial, he chose to use the court system to harass Higgins further. He didn’t even lie convincingly – it’s hard to see his actions as driven by anything other than entitlement and a desire to harm Higgins; not really even self-preservation.

As Justice Lee pithily put it, “having escaped the lion’s den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat.”

The court reconvenes on the 22nd of April to discuss costs, which are expected to run into the millions.

Cover image by Marcus Reubenstein on Unsplash.

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