Bruce Lehrmann trail is over


Photographs of the dress you were wearing when you were allegedly raped will be made public, pictures of the couch on which you were allegedly raped will be exhibited in court.

Bruce Lehrmann at ACT Supreme Court in October.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Lehrmann, who says he has also had thoughts of self-harm, lost two jobs over the alleged incident and will struggle to find employment.

Even those who are inclined to believe Higgins’ allegation must admit that Lehrmann has been denied natural justice.

It is understood he is contemplating civil remedies to redress his loss of reputation and employment.

While the case has been extraordinary, the allegation made by Higgins – that a young man took a heavily intoxicated woman to a private space so he could have sex with her without her consent – is as common as dirt.

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Walk into a room full of enough women and it’s bound to have happened to at least one of them.

The fact that it is alleged to have happened in federal parliament – an environment that has long been risky for female workers, and which is notorious for its boozy culture – is also unsurprising.

What was unusual was that the allegation went public and that it was prosecuted.

When Higgins told her story publicly, several things became obvious.

Firstly, the culture of Parliament House was unprofessional and toxic, especially for women.

Predation and alcohol abuse were so baked into that environment that women never even spoke of it – it was just the air they breathed and the unsteady ground on which they walked.

Secondly, the Lehrmann trial has made obvious how fundamental is the clash between an alleged victim’s right to free speech and the principles of the justice system.

Higgins and the media who reported on her faced, and still face, significant legal peril for simply telling her side of the story.

Thirdly, the case has made it impossible to ignore how badly our system smashes complainants.

Despite some modest reforms, cross-examination of alleged sexual assault victims is brutal to watch and must be far more brutal to experience.

There were legislative moves afoot to excuse Higgins from having to give evidence in person again; but the accused’s defence team would have every right to argue the necessity of re-examining the complainant in person, based on any fresh evidence.

The principles of the right to a fair trial and the protection of a complainant’s mental health were in total conflict with each other in this case.

That conflict was irresolvable, which is why the retrial was abandoned.

The bleakest truth is this: it was impossible to sit through the cross-examination of Higgins and conclude it was worth it; that vindication and peace lay at the end of that process.

Higgins was in open distress during the defence’s questioning of her.

She wept, became frustrated, was offended, and needed to take a week’s break in between sessions on the stand.

In announcing his decision to abandon the retrial, ACT Crown Prosecutor Shane Drumgold paid tribute to Higgins. He maintained there had been a reasonable prospect of conviction that justified proceeding with the first trial.

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Drumgold said Higgins had faced “a level of personal attack that I have not seen in over 20 years of doing this work”.

She had done so with “bravery, grace and dignity”, he said, and expressed his hope “that this will now stop”.

But although the trial process has ended, this business is not finished.

Future complainants are likely to conclude the criminal justice system does not serve them and that it is preferable to speak up and seek justice in other ways, however risky that may be.

The justice system, which rests upon the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence, will find itself increasingly embattled in a contemporary media environment that has little respect for that principle.

And those accused of sexual crimes might decide that exercising their right to silence does not adequately protect them from the damage done by such allegations.

We are witnessing a shift in the balance between victims’ rights, the principle of freedom of speech and the precepts of justice.

The Lehrmann trial, a tragedy for all involved, is only the beginning.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.



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