‘Limited’ chance of Lehrmann paying mammoth legal bill

Miklos Bolza |

A judge cast doubt on Bruce Lehrmann’s ability to pay court-ordered costs from his defamation trial.
A judge cast doubt on Bruce Lehrmann’s ability to pay court-ordered costs from his defamation trial.

Ten could have very limited prospects of recouping millions in legal costs spent successfully defending a defamation case brought by Bruce Lehrmann, a judge says.

The former Liberal staffer had his lawsuit tossed in April when Justice Michael Lee found reports he had raped Brittany Higgins in a parliament house office five years earlier were true, based on the balance of probabilities.

In May, the Federal Court judge ordered the 28-year-old pay the legal bill of Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson on an indemnity basis.

That is higher than ordinary costs, which usually allow from 50 to 60 per cent of a party’s bill to be recovered.

Justice Lee found Lehrmann had defended the criminal charge of rape “on a false basis, lied to police and then allowed that lie to go uncorrected before the jury”.

During a short hearing on Monday morning, the judge noted Wilkinson had spent just over $1.8 million defending the case.

File photo of Lisa Wilkinson arriving at court in Sydney
Lisa Wilkinson and Ten continue to disagree on how much was payable, her barrister has told court. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

Ten’s barrister Zoe Graus did not say how much the network was owed, adding those details were still being ironed out.

The hearing discussed whether Wilkinson’s costs should be sent to a referee for assessment, to see whether her expenses were reasonable and how much should eventually be covered by Ten as her employer.

The reference would also include how much Lehrmann would have to pay Ten for both its and Ms Wilkinson’s costs.

But Justice Lee questioned whether the network would be wasting money arguing over the details of specific charges as Lehrmann might not be able to foot the multimillion-dollar legal bill regardless of its cost.

“Is the cost associated with a reference … really worth the candle given … what appears to be … the limited prospect of recovery?” he asked.

“‘I don’t want people throwing good money after bad and having referees going down the path of preparing detailed reports when it’s a completely futile exercise.”

The ex-staffer had no financial backers and his lawyers had agreed they did not need to be paid if he lost the case, the court heard previously.

Wilkinson’s barrister Michael Elliott SC said his client and Ten continued to disagree on how much was payable.

“On any view, there would be a sensible sum of money that would be recognised as payable and there’s just an ongoing reluctance to pay us anything,” he told the court.

Ms Graus said Ten did not dispute that it had to pay some of Wilkinson’s legal expenses but it was having difficulty identifying which of her individually billed items it should pay.

Lehrmann sued Ten and Wilkinson over a February 2021 report on The Project in which Ms Higgins was interviewed about the alleged rape, in March 2019.

He has until May 31 to appeal the defamation case finding.

The case will return to court on June 27 when Ten could tell the court how much money it thinks Lehrmann should pay.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

AAP