Former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann has given evidence in court for the first time as a case related to the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins returned to court.
Mr Lehrmann took the witness stand in the Federal Court on Thursday, saying he was “outraged” when Ms Higgins’ allegations were aired in the media.
“Certainly, I was outraged from what I was seeing,” he told Justice Michael Lee of watching the Ten Network’s The Project on February 15, 2021.
“I wanted to commence defamation proceedings. It was that outrageous,” he said.
“From what I recall, I was outraged by the material I was seeing and I asked him (lawyer, Warwick Korn) about commencing defamation proceedings.
“The advice was to wait until we see what happens with the criminal matter.”
Mr Lehrmann sent WhatsApp messages to his then girlfriend ahead of The Project‘s broadcast, regarding a potential payout after speaking with Mr Korn.
“If I’m named tonight then [Mr Korn] says I’m up for millions in defamation,” he wrote.
In the messages, which were read out in the Federal Court on Thursday, Mr Lehrmann expressed confidence there would be no criminal charges brought against him.
“Criminal is off the cards completely,” he said.
Ms Higgins accused Mr Lehrmann of raping her in the Parliament House office of former minister Linda Reynolds, for whom they both worked, in 2019.
After a police investigation, he was charged with sexual intercourse without consent in August 2021.
Following Mr Lehrmann’s trial, the jury was discharged in October 2022 due to juror misconduct. Prosecutors said in December they would no longer pursue the charges, citing concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health.
In February, Mr Lehrmann launched defamation action against Network Ten and News Corp for their February 2021 coverage of rape allegations made by his former colleague.
Former Ten journalist Lisa Wilkinson and News political editor Samantha Maiden are also named in the lawsuits.
The parties were in court on Thursday to hear an extension of time application by Mr Lehrmann to bring the defamation lawsuits, which typically are required to be filed within a year of the allegedly defamatory publications.
Mr Lehrmann claims he could not start the lawsuits earlier because of the criminal proceeding, legal advice he received from Mr Korn, and his own mental health.
Wilkinson’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC said there were inconsistencies between the messages sent by Mr Lehrmann about Mr Korn’s advice and what he told his solicitor Paul Svilans, his instructing solicitor in the defamation case.
In his evidence, Mr Lehrmann said he had been suspended from his job at British American Tobacco after a News article on the rape allegations in February 2021 and had swiftly contacted Mr Korn for advice about any looming criminal matters.
He said Mr Korn told him to hold off on the defamation suit before the criminal cases were resolved, admitting that the topic had been discussed.
Despite telling his girlfriend that he was up for “millions” in defamation, he said he had not received this advice from Mr Korn but was merely trying to calm down his upset partner.
“I was placating [her] because she was distraught,” he said under cross examination by Ten barrister Dr Matthew Collins KC.
“In actual fact, I was in a sense putting on a brave face.”
Lawyers for Ten and News argue that when Mr Lehrmann spoke to Mr Korn, he believed there would be no charges brought against him, and it was unreasonable for him to wait so long to bring the defamation lawsuits.
Statements of claim for Mr Lehrmann filed in these actions say his personal reputation had been damaged by the reports.
Mr Lehrmann has consistently denied the allegations, telling the court he had to check-in at North Shore Hospital as a result of the “intense media scrutiny” and then leave his Sydney home, moving in with his mother in Toowoomba.
In their defences, Ten, News and Wilkinson say they will prove the truth of the sexual assault allegations.
The Federal Court hearing continues.
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