In 2021, a young political staffer alleged to media that, two years earlier, she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament House. It would eventually come to light that Brittany was referring to a man called Bruce Lehrmann, who has always adamantly denied and never been found guilty of these claims.
The case would eventually result in a very public saga, calling into question conduct in Parliament House. By the time the case went to trial—eventually ending in a mistrial and final cessation relating to Higgins’ health—it also called for the media, judicial system and members of the public to reflect on responses to sexual assault allegation at large.
All in all, Brittany Higgins Vs. Bruce Lehrmann became synonymous with a lot of questions about Australia’s culture and institutions.
We look back on some of the major events of this highly public case.
March 23, 2019
The incident is alleged to have occurred at Parliament House in the early hours of the morning on March 23, 2019. Two political staffers, Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, enter Parliament House around 1.40am. Lehrmann allegedly leaves approximately an hour later without Higgins.
Later that morning, Higgins is allegedly found partially naked on a couch in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office.
Lehrmann is terminated from his role at Parliament House in early April.
An AFP investigation is launched.
Higgins reports, and shortly thereafter drops, allegations of sexual assault related to the morning of March 23.
After the federal election in May 2019, Higgins moves to a new position with the office of Michaelia Cash, then the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business.
November 9, 2020
The Four Corners episode titled ‘Canberra Bubble’ airs. This episode explores a toxic workplace culture within Parliament House, particularly inappropriate relationships occurring within Coalition ranks.
Higgins is not mentioned but the episode does spur inquiries into conduct around Parliament House, and puts heat on the Coalition and then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, which would later be amplified by Higgins’ claims.
February 5, 2021
Higgins resigns, allegedly citing ongoing trauma from the March 2019 incident, The Canberra Times reports.
February 15, 2021
News.com.au publishes a bombshell interview with Higgins, airing her allegations for the first time, but not naming Bruce Lehrmann. That night, The Project airs an interview with Higgins around the same claims.
February 16, 2021
Then-Prime Minister Morrison and Linda Reynolds apologise to Higgins in Parliament.
Two reviews are also launched. One is to be conducted into workplace behaviour and culture in the coalition; the second is into processes of reporting and support for workplace issues.
November 5, 2021
According to The Guardian, Lehrmann—whose identity remained formally unknown at the time—appears via telephone in a magistrates court and pleads not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent, occurring at Parliament House in March 2019.
He is committed to stand trial.
Brittany Higgins is named one of marie claire‘s Women of the Year, covering the December issue alongside Grace Tame.
The Project host Lisa Wilkinson, while accepting a Logie for her interview with Higgins, makes a speech that prompts the Lehrmann trial to again be delayed.
Lehrmann’s lawyers argued this would infringe upon the fairness of the trial.
February 9, 2022
Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame front the National Press Club, delivering a scathing takedown of the Morrison government’s handling of sexual assault in Parliament House and beyond.
This came one day after Morrison made a formal apology to victims of sexual harassment, assault and bullying in parliament, and apologised to Higgins directly.
October 4, 2022
The trial begins at the ACT Supreme Court, in which Higgins accuses Lehrmann of sexual intercourse without consent, to which Lehrmann plead not guilty.
Via Higgins’ team, the court heard that on March 23, 2019, the two staffers allegedly entered Parliament House while both noticeably intoxicated. Higgins’ team then alleged she fell asleep on a couch in Senator Reynolds’ office, and when she woke up, Lehrmann was having sex with her.
Lerhmann’s team, meanwhile, said Lehrmann never had intercourse with Higgins and suggested there were “massive holes” in Higgins’ story.
Over the course of the three-week trial, 29 witnesses were called, including relevant politicians, Michaelia Cash, Steven Ciobo and Linda Reynolds.
October 19, 2022
The trial concludes and the jury begins deliberations.
October 25, 2022
The jury reports that it is unable to reach a verdict, failing to reach a unanimous decision.
The magistrate requests it continue deliberations.
October 27, 2022
During the continued deliberations, a juror is found to have conducted private research beyond matters presented to the court. As a consequence, the entire 12-person jury is dismissed and a mistrial is declared.
“It has come to my attention that one of you, contrary to directions, has undertaken research in relation to issues in the case and that material has entered the jury room that ought not to have,” Chief justice Lucy McCallum said at the time.
“I have heard an explanation and it may be that no harm has been done, but that is not a risk that I can take. In the circumstances, I have discharged that juror and I have to discharge you all.”
The case is eventually relisted for February 2023—but never makes it back to court.
December 2, 2022
The case is dropped after the Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, finds it poses an “unacceptable risk” to Higgins’ health and wellbeing.
“I have recently received compelling evidence from two independent medical experts that the ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant,” he said, according to ABC News.
“I have made the difficult decision that it is no longer in the public interest to pursue a prosecution at the risk of the complainant’s life.”
April 5, 2023
Lehrmann files defamation proceedings against Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten, News Corp and Samantha Maiden for their original reporting in February 2021.
He also sues the ABC for airing the National Press Club address made by Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame in February 2022.
May 30, 2023
News Corp and Lehrmann settle out of court, and all charges were dropped against the publisher and journalist Samantha Maiden.
As reported by Nine News, Lehrmann did not receive any damages, and the articles in question will remain online, with the following amendment:
June 4, 2023
Bruce Lehrmann gave his first public interview on Sunday, June 4. The interview aired on the 7News Spotlight program at 8:30pm on Channel 7.
November 30, 2023
Brittany Higgins has testified in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation action against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson, per the Sydney Morning Herald.
Lehrmann is arguing that he was “easily identifiable” in Network 10’s reporting of the alleged event, and suffered reputational damage as a result.
The network is arguing a truth defence, and are attempting to establish that reporting of Higgins’ allegation she was sexually assaulted by Lerhmann was fair. Higgins took to the stand as part of the network’s defence, giving a detailed description of the night in question, recalling how Lehrmann allegedly raped her in Parliament House in 2019.
She told the court that she was at local bar The Dock bar in Canberra, with several of her colleagues, including Lehrmann.
She described Lehrmann allegedly “being handsy” with her while at the venue: “I remember him sitting really close to me. I remember him having his arm around my shoulder. I remember him touching me. And I remember having … a thought process of discomfort but not wanting to vocalise the discomfort.”
Higgins went on to recount how she and Lehrmann ended up at Parliament House together, after someone in the group suggested they share a ride share service home together, as they lived in the same direction.
However, she alleged that Lehrmann did not tell her that he needed to stop at Parliament House “to pick something up from work” until she was already in the car.
“I didn’t have all my wits about me to question it or to be curious about what he needed at work at whatever time in the morning it was,” she said. “I was drunk, I wasn’t really thinking about it and I just went along with it.”
Once they arrived at Parliament House, Higgins said she had no memory of talking to security, but that she could “kind of just remember standing there and letting [Lehrmann] handle it.”
She then became emotional as she told the court her next memory of the night was waking up on a couch in Linda Reynolds‘ office with Lehrmann allegedly assaulting her.
“He was having sex with me at that point in time, and that was what I first woke up to,” Higgins alleged.
“My head was in the back corner of the couch, he was on top of me, his arms were over the top of the couch.”
She described repeatedly refusing her consent, saying “I don’t know how many times I said it… He didn’t even acknowledge it.”
Lehrmann vehemently denies the allegations from Higgins.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.
If you need support for your mental health and wellbeing, call Lifeline on 13 43 57 or visit lifeline.org.au.