Watch live: Higgins returns to court after clash with Lehrmann’s barrister

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Former federal Liberal political staffer Brittany Higgins returns to the witness box on Friday in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case after a heated day of evidence in which she clashed with his barrister and rejected some of his questioning as “insulting”.

Higgins is giving evidence for Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson as they defend a Federal Court defamation suit brought against them by Lehrmann over an interview with Higgins, aired on The Project on February 15, 2021, that he claims wrongly accuses him of raping Higgins in 2019.

Brittany Higgins leaves the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday with her legal team, barrister Nicholas Owens, SC,(left) and Arnold Bloch Leibler partner Leon Zwier (right).Credit: Nikki Short

During a tense day of questioning on Thursday, Lehrmann’s barrister, Steven Whybrow, SC, asked Higgins repeatedly about whether she recalled being partially or completely naked when she woke up in Parliament House after the alleged assault.

A Parliament House security guard gave evidence in Lehrmann’s ACT criminal trial, which was aborted in October last year due to juror misconduct, that she found Higgins naked in the early hours of Saturday, March 23, 2019.

The charge against Lehrmann was later dropped altogether amid concerns about Higgins’ mental health.

‘Insulting’ assertion

Whybrow asked Higgins if her “previously strong assertions that you woke up with the dress half-on changed” after the security guard said she found the then-staffer naked.

Steven Whybrow, SC, and Bruce Lehrmann outside the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday.Credit: Nikki Short

“I suggest to you it’s a significant matter because it immediately follows your alleged sexual assault,” Whybrow said.

“Well, as I was being raped it wasn’t my primary concern where my dress was. I was deeply more concerned about the penis in my vagina that I didn’t want there,” Higgins replied angrily.

“It wasn’t about my dress. I wasn’t concerned about my dress in that moment. But the next morning when I woke up and vomited into a toilet, the first thing I did wasn’t, ‘where is my dress? Is it on my body or is it on the ground?‘”

Whybrow pressed: “Ms Higgins, you understand that I’m asserting that that is a fabrication that you were sexually assaulted, don’t you?”

Higgins replied: “I understand that that is your assertion. It’s insulting, but I understand it.”

Earlier on Thursday, Higgins had said she “thought my dress was on my person” and bunched up around her waist like a belt.

“I didn’t remember having to put it back on. I accept that that may be incorrect,” she said.

‘I would never do that’

Whybrow put to Higgins that she made up the sexual assault allegation because she was concerned about her job after she “passed out drunk” in the office of her then-boss and defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in Parliament House.

“My job is just not that important, I’m sorry,” Higgins said. “I would never do that.”

She agreed that she lied when she told police and an ex-boyfriend she had gone to the doctor after the alleged assault. She said she was “placating” her former boyfriend, as she was when she said that she was looking after herself and “doing okay”.

Higgins also agreed that she didn’t have an appointment when she texted Reynolds’ then chief of staff asking for the day off to go to the doctor.

She said this was not a lie because she had an intention at the time to go, but didn’t follow through because she was “terrified”.

New information

Whybrow put to Higgins during her evidence that “as you find out further information you adapt and evolve your narrative to fit the new information, do you agree with that?”

“No, but I accept where I am wrong, and I try to apply it in every weird circumstance I end up in to give the most honest answer I can,” Higgins said.

The pre-interview

Higgins accepted on Thursday it was a lie when she agreed with Wilkinson’s suggestion in a pre-interview, the audio of which was recorded but not broadcast, that Lehrmann had removed her “panties”. She told the court she was “too embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t wearing underwear that night”.

Higgins later sought to “correct the record” in court and say she had told the truth about not wearing underwear in the Ten broadcast, to the police, and in the criminal proceedings, and “had a lie of omission” in the “conversation in passing”.

Justice Michael Lee described her comments as akin to a reply to a question in re-examination by Ten’s barrister rather than a correction to a specific question asked by Whybrow in his cross-examination, and said he would “take it essentially as client-based re-examination”.

The alleged assault

Higgins broke down in tears in court on Wednesday as she gave evidence alleging Lehrmann raped her in the office of their then-boss in the early hours of March 23, 2019, and again on Thursday during hours of cross-examination.

The court has heard Lehrmann left the Parliament House office at about 2.30am on the morning of the alleged assault while Higgins did not leave until about 10am.

Lehrmann has insisted the alleged assault “did not happen” and the pair had no sexual contact.

If the court finds Lehrmann was identified by The Project broadcast, which did not name him, Ten and Wilkinson are seeking to rely in part on a truth defence and prove to the civil standard – on the balance of probabilities – that Lehrmann raped Higgins.

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