One of the most high profile sexual assault trials in Australian history is underway in the ACT Supreme court, after Bruce Lehrmann was formally charged with raping Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.
Higgins was working for former Liberal MP Steven Ciobo, while Lehrmann was working for then-defence industry minister Linda Reynolds.
On the night of Friday, March 21, 2019, Higgins and Lehrmann went to a Canberra bar with colleagues and returned to Parliament House late into the night. Higgins claims Lehrmann then allegedly raped her in Reynold’s office.
Lehrmann has denied all charges, and pleaded not guilty.
The trial by jury is expected to last for four to six weeks, with witnesses including Senator Reynolds, Liberal senator Michaelia Cash and Ciobo being called to the stand.
Chief Justice Lucy McCallum will oversee the trial, and she has issued a clear warning to the jury asking them to refrain from reading media coverage around the case, nor discussing what they hear in court with others. She said doing this would impact the course of a fair and impartial trial.
Here’s what you need to know.
What has Brittany Higgins accused Bruce Lehrmann of?
In the first week of the trial in October, prosecutor Shane Drumgold SC told the court in his opening address the alleged assault occurred after Higgins and Lehrmann had attended Friday night drinks at a Canberra bar alongside their colleagues.
The court heard that the pair then shared a taxi to go back to their respective homes, but on the way, Lehrmann told Higgins he needed to collect work documents from Parliament House. When they arrived, Lehrmann told guards through an intercom that he was with Senator Reynolds and they needed to pick up documents, according to Drumgold.
Drumgold then claimed the security guards who saw Higgins and Lehrmann enter the building had observed they were affected by alcohol.
The court heard that Higgins fell asleep on a couch in Senator Reynolds’ office, and when she woke up, Lehrmann was having sex with her.
Drumgold told the court that Higgins said “said ‘no’ half a dozen times”. After the alleged act, Lehrmann left the building without Higgins, who fell back asleep. She was woken up later that morning by a security guard.
Higgins has claimed to the court she was “as drunk as she’s ever been” that night, which Drumgold says is important to the case because it affected her ability to consent.
What has Bruce Lerhmann said?
Lehrmann has denied the allegations against him, and he claims that he never had sexual intercourse with Higgins.
His defence lawyer Steven Whybrow began his opening address to the court by quoting Mark Twain: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’, claiming that this line rang true in this case.
Whybrow told the court there were “massive holes” Higgins’ version of events, and said that while violence against women was an “under-reported and under-prosecuted scourge on our society”, her story was not true.
He continued: “This verdict in no way affects the conversations and the focus that is being turned to these issues. We have all known for some time these things are real.”
In his cross-examination of Higgins, Whybrow probed her on her dealings with the media which took place at the same time she was lodging a formal police complaint.
Higgins said that she did speak to the media in the hopes that it would bring cultural reform to the Liberal party. Specifically, she said she spoke to two Australian journalists, Lisa Wilkinson and Samantha Maiden.
“I tried both avenues. I thought, I’ll speak about this in the media, I’ll do my act of service in leaving and talk to the media, and I’ll also speak to the police,” she told the court.
“I went down both avenues and I stand by my choice. I’m not ashamed of that.”
The court also heard that Higgins secretly recorded two conversations with parliamentary staffers about the allegations before she resigned and went public—one with the chief of staff of her then minister, Michaelia Cash, and another recording with Cash herself.
“All of it sounds ridiculous, but I needed a chief of staff to corroborate it,” Higgins told the court.
Whybrow also asked Higgins why she had deleted some text messages and photos from her phone before she handed it to police, to which she replied that she had cleared her phone of photos which showed her holding alcohol or where she was pictured with politicians.
She claimed she did this to purge “horrible parts” of her life—and not to mislead officers who were investigating her allegations.
Drumgold has flagged more than 50 witnesses will take the stand, including Senator Reynolds, Senator Cash and Former Minister Steven Ciobo.
Journalists Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson may also be called as witnesses.
The trial continues.
If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service or contact Full Stop Australia.