Liar, rapist: Ten ‘vindicated’ in Lehrmann verdict

Miklos Bolza and Duncan Murray |

Bruce Lehrmann was recklessly indifferent to Brittany Higgins’ rights, a Federal Court judge said.
Bruce Lehrmann was recklessly indifferent to Brittany Higgins’ rights, a Federal Court judge said.

Bruce Lehrmann hoped for vindication for his tarnished reputation, but instead he suffered courtroom devastation after a judge found he raped Brittany Higgins during an infamous night at Parliament House.

After months poring over what happened in a senator’s office in March 2019 – as well as in the lead-up and devastating aftermath – Justice Michael Lee on Monday handed down his judgment in Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.

“Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins,” he told the Federal Court 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 after-work drinks on a routine Friday evening in Canberra.

Later, they hopped in an Uber and returned to parliament, where Justice Lee said they ended up on a couch in the office of their then-boss, Senator Linda Reynolds.

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

The former Liberal staffer sat with his head bowed while listening to the judge’s findings after repeatedly denying anything sexual took place that night.

“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.”

Brittany Higgins (file image)
The judge found Brittany Higgins’ cover-up allegation was objectively short on facts. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

While Justice Lee said he could not find that Ms Higgins told Lehrmann no “on a loop” during the alleged assault, she was passive “like a log”.

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

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.

A Logies speech by Wilkinson over The Project segment derailed criminal proceedings against Lehrmann and denied him the right to a fair trial, but it also 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.

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

But Justice Lee singled out Lehrmann for telling “deliberate lies”, adding that he had no compunction from departing from the truth if he thought it was expedient.

Barrister Sue Chrysanthou KC (left), and Lisa Wilkinson
Lisa Wilkinson (right) said she hoped the judgment “gives strength to women around the country”. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

The judge said Ms Higgins had also been loose with the truth in 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.

He also slammed Ten and Wilkinson for their conduct over The Project item, describing it as falling short of the standard of reasonableness.

The broadcaster had chased the allegation of a government cover-up which was “without reasonable foundation in verifiable fact”, Justice Lee said.

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

Speaking outside court, Wilkinson acknowledged the victory, saying the judge found she published a “true report” about the events in Parliament House.

“I sincerely hope that this judgment gives strength to women around the country,” she said.

Bruce Lehrmann (centre) departs the Federal Court
Lehrmann did not say anything as he pushed through a scrum of waiting reporters. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

Ten’s solicitor Justin Quill called the result an “unmitigated disaster” for Lehrmann.

“For Channel Ten, it’s vindication,” he said.

“Vindication in its belief and support of Brittany Higgins.”

Lehrmann did not say anything as he pushed through a scrum of waiting reporters.

The case will soon come back before the courts to discuss the issue of legal costs.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028