In Australia, a Validation of Sorts for Brittany Higgins

By Equipo
5 Min Read

When a young former government employee said on national television in 2021 that she had been sexually assaulted in Australia’s Parliament two years earlier, it shocked the nation and unleashed a wave of anger aimed at the country’s insular, male-dominated political establishment.

The employee, Brittany Higgins, accused her colleague Bruce Lehrmann of raping her when she was inebriated, and said that she felt pressure from the government at the time not to report the assault. She became a figurehead for a reckoning on women’s rights that ultimately contributed to the electoral ousting of Australia’s conservative national government. But for years, there was no legal conclusion to the case.

On Monday, it was finally — somewhat — settled, in a roundabout way.

Mr. Lehrmann lost a civil defamation suit that he had filed against the television station that first broadcast Ms. Higgins’s account, with the judge ruling that based on the available evidence, it was more likely than not that Mr. Lehrmann had raped her.

The proceedings did not take place in a criminal court, and the offense did not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the standard of proof was a balance of probabilities — a legal term meaning whether something is more likely than not to have occurred.

Still, for many, this was a long-awaited validation for Ms. Higgins.

“Something resembling justice has been done,” said Sarah Maddison, a political science professor at the University of Melbourne.

Justice Michael Lee of the Australian Federal Court in Sydney determined on Monday that it was more likely than not that Ms. Higgins had been inebriated, unaware of her surroundings, and lying still “like a log” while Mr. Lehrmann assaulted her. The judge found that Mr. Lehrmann had been “hellbent” on having sex with her, disregarding whether she had the capacity to consent.

“In his pursuit of gratification, he did not care one way or another whether Ms. Higgins understood or agreed to what was going on,” Justice Lee said in his ruling.

The judge added that although he believed Ms. Higgins had overstated the extent to which the government had tried to cover up the incident, her account of the assault itself was believable. The judge also said that nothing Mr. Lehrmann had said should be accepted as fact without corroboration from other sources.

Professor Maddison said the case illustrated the concerns that many women have about the way sexual assault allegations are dealt with by Australia’s justice system, including the harsh scrutiny that accusers are often subjected to.

In 2022, during a criminal trial about the case, Ms. Higgins sat through days of intense cross-examination by defense lawyers who suggested that she did not actually remember what had happened, and who accused her of making up the accusation. She denied that repeatedly, sometimes defiantly and sometimes in tears.

That criminal trial ended in a mistrial after a juror went against the judge’s instructions and brought research on sexual assault cases into the jury room. But prosecutors decided against a retrial because of concerns about Ms. Higgins’s mental health.

Mr. Lehrmann then sued Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson, the journalist who was the first to interview Ms. Higgins on television, for defamation.

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

After Monday’s verdict, Ms. Wilkinson told reporters: “I feel glad for the women of Australia today.” Mr. Lehrmann and Ms. Higgins did not immediately respond to requests for comment made through their lawyers.

Rachael Burgin, a senior lecturer in criminology at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, said the outcome of the defamation trial, in a way, was still unsatisfactory.

Mr. Lehrmann suffered few consequences, she said, while Ms. Higgins “had to go through a hell of a lot to get here, and she doesn’t get a lot out of it in terms of justice.”

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