‘Through gritted teeth’: Why Brittany Higgins rape case delayed

Courtney GouldNCA NewsWire
Ms Higgins and Ms Wilkinson earlier in the year. Tim Hunter.
Camera IconMs Higgins and Ms Wilkinson earlier in the year. Tim Hunter. Credit: News Corp Australia

The trial of the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins has been delayed in the wake of an “extraordinary” Logies acceptance speech from Lisa Wilkinson.

Bruce Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting Ms Higgins inside Parliament House in 2019.

He was due to stand trial in the ACT Supreme Court on Monday, June 27.

But lawyers representing Mr Lehrmann were successful in their application to delay the trial following the publicity that surrounded Ms Wilkinson’s speech.

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Camera IconA judge in the case involving Brittany Higgins has hit out at the media. Credit: News Corp Australia

ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum said her judgement was made “through gritted teeth”, warning the line between allegation and a finding of guilt had been “obliterated”.

“The recent publicity does in my view, change the landscape because of its immediacy, its intensity and its capacity to obliterate the important distinction between an allegation that remains untested at law and and one that has been accepted by a jury giving a true verdict according to the evidence,” she told the court.

Ms Wilkinson is expected to be called as a witness when the trial commences.

The court heard Ms Wilkinson was given a “clear and appropriate” warning during a pretrial conference on June 15 the defence could launch a stay application in the event of increased publicity.

At the time, she offered to read out her prepared Logies speech (noting she did not think she would win) but was stopped when the prosecution said they were not “speech editors”.

The judge said she was wrong to trust the media.
Camera IconThe judge said she was wrong to trust the media. Credit: Supplied

Earlier, defence barrister Steven Whybrow said the Project host’s speech “did not have to be made”.

Mr Whybrow claimed more than 800,000 searches were made in relation to Ms Wilkinson’s speech on Monday alone.

He also noted reactions on Twitter and Instagram, as well as a radio program and other news outlets, as evidence of intense attention in the lead-up to the start of the trial.

He said his client did not want to delay proceedings.

“He (Lehrmann) wants to get it on, but he wants a fair trial,” Mr Whybrow said.

ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold argued the Logies speech was a “regurgitation of emotion” and was not a significant departure from Ms Wilkinson’s previous comments.

“Mightn’t good journalism include being mindful of the impact of your reporting on criminal proceedings, and remembering to insert the magic word alleged?” Justice McCallum responded.

According to the defence counsel, the concern was that Ms Wilkinson‘s speech and social media posts, paired with a segment with Jonsey & Amanda on the radio – so close to the trial – would impact the impartiality of the jury.

Towards the end of the hearing, Mr Drumgold flagged the prosecution could seek injunction orders for Ms Higgins and Ms Wilkinson, as well as radio hosts Amanda Keller and Brendan Jones, which could prevent them from speaking publicly about the case.

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Camera IconMs Higgins and Ms Wilkinson earlier in the year. Tim Hunter. Credit: News Corp Australia

Justice McCallum slammed the press for “obliterating” the line between an allegation and guilt.

“The implicit premise of (Lisa Wilkinson’s speech) is to celebrate the truthfulness of the story she exposed,” she said.

But she told the court she had made a mistake for refusing a bid for suppression orders to prevent further publications about the case

“I trusted the press … you were right and I was wrong,” she told the court.

She added unease around the “seamless elision” of the stories of Grace Tame, whose abuser was convicted and served a prison sentence”, and Ms Higgins, whose allegation had not yet been tested in a criminal trial.

Camera IconJustice McCallum said she was wrong to trust the media. Newswire/Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

“Grace Tame was talking about her experience after the man had been convicted and served a sentence of imprisonment,” she said.

“(Tame’s) important contribution to the legal landscape was to say ‘the jury knows what he did, the public knows what he did, but I can’t talk about it because of the law that prohibits me outing myself.

“Miss Higgins is treated as being in the same category. And she’s not,’’ Justice McCallum said.

“At the moment, she is not in that category. That’s what really troubles me about the last round.”

Earlier this year, Justice McCallum delivered a “blunt” warning the trial could be postponed or not proceed at all.

“A man has been accused of a very serious offence, it is an offence that can only be tried with a jury,” she said in the ACT Supreme Court.

“The laws about contempt are well known in this country.

“Statements made before a criminal trial that might interfere with the administration of justice and, in particular, the ability of an accused man to have a fair trial risk falling in the classification of contempt.”

She said she “strongly” urged people to be careful.

“If I could put it in blunter terms, the more people keep talking about this case the greater the risk the prosecution will be stayed,” she said.

It’s not yet clear when the trial will go ahead. The case will return to court for a mention on Thursday.

Originally published as ‘Through gritted teeth’: Why Brittany Higgins rape case delayed

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