Bruce Lehrmann fights to keep defamation actions alive

Miklos Bolza |

Bruce Lehrmann faces the prospect that two late-filed defamation cases over media reports on the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins could be dismissed.

In a Federal Court hearing on Thursday, Network Ten, News Corp and journalist Lisa Wilkinson all attacked the former Liberal staffer’s lawsuits, arguing the cases were filed outside the required 12-month period.

The cases were launched on February 7, almost two years after Ten program The Project and a separate News article by Samantha Maiden reported on Ms Higgins’ allegations.

Ms Higgins accused Mr Lehrmann of raping her in the Parliament House office of former minister Linda Reynolds, who they both worked for, in 2019. He strenuously denies this claim.

Mr Lehrmann’s barrister, Matthew Richardson SC, said it would not have been reasonable for his client to launch the defamation cases sooner because of ongoing criminal proceedings.

Australian Federal Police charged Mr Lehrmann in August 2021. The trial jury was discharged in October last year because of potential jury misconduct.

Prosecutors said they would no longer pursue the charges in December, citing concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health.

Mr Lehrmann had the benefit of the full 12-month period and should not have been forced to launch proceedings in the six months before he was charged, Mr Richardson told Justice Michael Lee on Thursday.

Inconsistencies between evidence given by the law student in court last week and WhatsApp messages sent on February 15, 2021, about advice given in a six-hour meeting with lawyer Warwick Korn could be explained, Mr Richardson said.

While the former staffer said in his texts that criminal charges were “off the cards” and he would be “up for millions” in defamation damages, he claimed he was putting on a brave face for those he knew.

It was “implausible” Mr Korn would have actually given this advice as a criminal lawyer, the court heard.

Submissions by Ten and News that Mr Lehrmann was a “habitual liar” should be rejected, Mr Richardson said.

“This is unfair to a human being who found himself in that situation.”

Ten’s barrister, Matthew Collins KC, argued Mr Lehrmann’s focus had been on defamation from the day he viewed the media reports and he had compiled a list of friendly media outlets, PR representatives and a “hit list” of those he wanted to sue in the months after.

Accusing Mr Lehrmann of giving unreliable evidence, Dr Collins urged the court to look at the messages sent on February 15 as a better indicator of whether defamation action was considered at the time.

The messages showed he was told he had a “red-hot defamation case” and that criminal prosecution was unlikely, Dr Collins said.

“Why on earth was he sitting on his hands for a year?” the barrister asked.

Dr Collins also argued the former staffer had not stuck to his right to silence ahead of the criminal case, saying he had “enthusiastically embraced” the chance to tell his full story in a recorded interview with the AFP in April 2021.

Wilkinson’s barrister, Sue Chrysanthou SC, said as well as speaking to the AFP, Mr Lehrmann had also taken the unusual step of making a public statement through his lawyers “absolutely and unequivocally” denying the charges.

“That is not a person who is keeping his cards close to his chest as to his defence,” she said.

These public statements contradicted Mr Lehrmann’s claims he would have been prejudiced by starting the lawsuits by being publicly forced to give evidence in a civil court while the criminal matters were ongoing, the media organisations claim.

As part of another reason why the extension of time should be rejected, Ms Chrysanthou said Wilkinson had not been sent a concerns notice or an offer to settle the dispute prior to the cases being filed and had only found out the day after the lawsuits were launched through media reports.

Justice Lee has reserved his decision.