Major update in Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

The Federal Court will hand down its findings in the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial on April 4, 2024.

The long-awaited judgement will be made public at 10.15 am by Federal Court Judge Michael Lee. has confirmed that the Federal Court has written to all parties confirming that the court will hand down its findings next month.

Mr Lehrmann sued Network 10 and Lisa Wilkinson over The Project’s interview with Brittany Higgins in which she alleged she was raped at Parliament House.

Mr Lehrmann is arguing he was defamed by the broadcast, that did not name him but he argues identified him.

He strenuously denies the claims and Ms Higgins’ rape trial was aborted with no findings made against him.

Justice Lee intends to explain his reasons orally by reading the central aspects of the reasoning from the judgment.

He will also release a written judgement as the authoritative statement of the Court’s reasons.

The question of costs will be determined on a date to be fixed after the hearing.

Judge’s warning on ‘credit issues’

Justice Michael Lee has been writing his judgment in the Lehrmann defamation case since late last year after a six week trial.

He has previously warned there are “significant credit issues” with both Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins in the defamation case the former Liberal staffer brought against Network Ten and its presenter Wilkinson.

“There are a number of significant differences they’ve given in court, a number of in-court representations and out-of-court representations,” Justice Lee said.

“You have to be careful … when you’re making credit findings, working out, if there are general credit problems with witnesses, what parts of their evidence you can believe,” Lee said.

“Hence, credit is particularly important in this case.”

“So I just want to give everyone a chance to deal with anything they want to say concerning the issue of credit.”

Concerns over $2.4 million compo evidence

Justice Lee has also raised questions over Ms Higgins’ evidence in relation to her personal injury claim for compensation from the commonwealth.

Ms Higgins’ $2.4 million payout will be considered in the defamation trial when judging her general credit as a witness.

Channel Ten’s legal team has accepted the judge can make findings in relation to the matter without her being recalled as a witness.

But they have argued that it would be irrelevant to the determination of the defamation trial for the judge to make any findings on “whether in substance Ms Higgins had committed a fraud on the Commonwealth of Australia”.

Ms Higgins’ credibility as a witness is crucial to Network Ten’s defence with the judge raising concerns of credit issues in relation to the evidence of both Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann who has vehemently denied raping her at Parliament House.

Lehrmann’s lawyer: Brittany Higgins had ‘preparedness to tell lies’

In final submissions to the Federal Court, previously made public, Mr Lehrmann’s legal team said Ms Higgins had a “preparedness to tell lies”, both to the federal government to receive the settlement and to the ACT courts.

The alleged inconsistencies included claims in the deed that Mr Lehrmann jumped into a cab “without invitation or agreement”, whether Mr Lehrmann had led her to Minister Linda Reynolds’s office, whether Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann spoke the day after the alleged rape, and whether Ms Higgins had disclosed the alleged rape to the then-chief of staff Fiona Brown.

“In many places throughout these submissions it has been shown that Ms Higgins’s evidence in this proceeding on multiple elements of the allegation is itself contradicted by other out-of-court representations made, such as to The Project during the two sit down interviews,” Bruce Lehrmann’s barrister’s submission said.

“No confidence can be placed in Ms Higgins’s understanding of her obligation to tell the truth under oath or on the most solemn of occasions,” the submissions said.

Bruce Lehrmann ‘perverted course of justice’

But Wilkinson’s legal team have argued that Mr Lehrmann will have “perverted the course of justice” if he is found to have lied about having even consensual sex with Ms Higgins.

Barrister Sue Chrysathanou, acting for Wilkinson, outlined how the court should proceed if it finds Mr Lehrmann had sex with Ms Higgins in the ministerial suite.

The statements were made in closing submissions in the defamation trial.

Broadcaster Channel Ten has separately argued if the Federal Court finds Mr Lehrmann had sex with Ms Higgins that night, that his conduct in bringing the defamation case – given he denied any sex – is “utterly wicked” and as such no damages should be awarded.

“[T]hat would be wicked conduct of the highest magnitude that would, in Network Ten’s submission, rise to the level of a very exceptional case of abuse of process,” barristers Matt Collins KC and Tim Senior’s submission stated.

“The circumstances would be such that it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute to award Mr Lehrmann any damages.”

To the extent it is found that Mr Lehrmann had sexual intercourse with Ms Higgins, Ms Wilkinson’s legal team argued this would mean he had “cheated on his girlfriend despite using his apparently monogamous relationship with her as a reason to deny Ms Higgins’ allegations.”

“That he perverted the course of justice in lying to the police,’’ the submission states.

“That he instructed his counsel to cross-examine Ms Higgins both at the criminal trial and in this trial on a false basis and presented her as a fantasist to the Courts and in his public statements, and that such conduct is so serious and connect to the serious allegations that no damages ought to be awarded.”

Bruce Lehrmann wants damages even if Federal Court finds there was consensual sex

However, Mr Lehrmann’s own legal team have argued that he should still receive “substantial damages” even if he is found to have lied about not having sex with Ms Higgins.

In written submissions, his team state that if the Federal Court finds that “intercourse probably happened” that Mr Lehrmann’s denial of sex during his interview with the Australian Federal Police “was a lie, and that this is a serious matter which is relevant to assessing [the quantum of] damages”.

“It is going too far, however, to characterise it as “perverting the course of justice”, as Ms Wilkinson does in her defence,” Mr Lehrmann’s legal team submission states.

Ms Wilkinson’s legal team conceded Ms Higgins was a “combative witness” who did not always have “a good recollection” of some events but argued that should not stop the Federal Court from finding she told the truth about her alleged rape.

Barrister Sue Chrysanthou argues in her closing submissions that Ms Higgins has been under “unrelenting pressure” since going public with her rape claim in February, 2021.

Regardless, the submission argues that Ms Higgins should be believed on the issue at the centre of the defamation trial.

“We all saw Ms Higgins’ evidence in chief about that event – it was compelling and believable. Ms Higgins’ was supported by objective and incontrovertible evidence, as discussed below,’’ it states.

On the question of Ms Wilkinson’s own performance in the witness box, the submission notes that Ms Wilkinson had affirmed two affidavits and her account of factual events in her affidavits was almost entirely unchallenged.

“Ms Wilkinson has spent decades in a professional environment which involved conversational style interviews and debates,’’ the submission states.

“It is unsurprising that she had difficulty within the structure of giving evidence for the first time in a Court. Although at times her answers were unresponsive, it was clear that she was earnestly attempting to answer what she understood she was being asked and was doing so honestly. Ms Wilkinson’s oral evidence should be generally accepted and, where relevant, relied upon.”

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