Devastating loss for Lehrmann with judge’s rape finding

Miklos Bolza |

A judgment is expected in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson.
A judgment is expected in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson.

Bruce Lehrmann has suffered a devastating loss in his attempt to restore his reputation after a judge found he was indifferent to whether a drunk Brittany Higgins consented or not before he raped her at Parliament House.

The findings were delivered by Justice Michael Lee on Monday as he handed down judgment in Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.

“Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins,” he said of the infamous night as he ruled in favour of Ten.

While there was no evidence Lehrmann knew that Ms Higgins did not consent to the sexual activity, he was recklessly indifferent to her rights, the judge said.

The two staffers were seen kissing and touching while out for drinks one Friday evening in Canberra in March 2019 before they hopped in an Uber and returned to Parliament House.

“Having successfully brought Ms Higgins back to a secluded place, Mr Lehrmann was hell-bent on having sex,” he told a packed courtroom.

The former Liberal staffer sat with his head bowed while listening to the judge’s findings.

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

“Human experience suggests what he then wanted to happen is not exactly shrouded in mystery.”

If the 28-year-old had won his defamation case, he would only have been entitled to a “very modest” amount of $20,000 in damages given the limited nature of any hurt from Ten’s reporting, Justice Lee said.

Lisa Wilkinson (left) arrives at the Federal Court
Lisa Wilkinson’s Logies speech derailed criminal proceedings against Lehrmann, the judge said. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

While a Logies speech by Lisa Wilkinson over The Project segment derailed criminal proceedings against Lehrmann and denied him the right to a fair trial, this gave his legal team more time to attack Ms Higgins’ allegations.

The criminal trial against Lehrmann was abandoned in 2022 with no findings made against him.

“Having escaped the lions’ den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat,” Justice Lee said.

Earlier on Monday, the judge slammed Lehrmann as an unreliable, dishonest witness.

“Mr Lehrmann has no compunction from departing from the truth if he thought it was expedient,” the judge said.

“I am satisfied that in important respects, he told deliberate lies.”

The 28-year-old sued Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson for defamation over a February 2021 report on The Project airing Ms Higgins’ claims.

Justice Lee described both Lehrmann and Ms Higgins as “unreliable historians” when recounting what occurred on that fateful night.

Brittany Higgins (file image)
The judge found any of Brittany Higgins’ incorrect statements to police in 2019 explicable. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

The judge said Ms Higgins had been loose with the truth regarding allegations made to Ten in 2021 that members of the then-coalition government had sought to silence her in reporting the alleged rape.

“‘The cover-up allegation was objectively short on facts but long on speculation,” he said.

But Justice Lee found that any incorrect statements made to the police in 2019 were not inconsistent with remarks being made by a genuine victim of sexual assault.

Justice Lee said Lehrmann was not entitled to vindicate his reputation despite being identified by Ten’s report.

The judge also slammed Ten for its conduct, saying the broadcaster had chased the allegation of a government cover-up which was “without reasonable foundation in verifiable fact”.

“The allegation of rape was the minor theme (of the broadcast) and the allegation of cover-up was the major motif,” he said.

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