Defamation law: Case summary – Lehrmann v Network Ten Pty Limited (Trial Judgment) [2024] FCA 369

CO
Carroll & O'Dea

Contributor

Established over 120 years ago, Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers offers expert advice and strong advocacy for clients. With a commitment to high-level service and legal expertise in all areas, they blend tradition with modern skills.
Defamation law in Australia aims to protect individuals from unwarranted harm to their reputations by false statements.
Australia Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
To print this article, all you need is to be registered or login on Mondaq.com.

Background

In April 2023, Bruce Lehrmann, a former political staffer, initiated defamation proceedings against Network Ten, and journalist, Lisa Wilkinson, based on comments made on The Project in 2021 concerning Brittany Higgins' sexual assault allegations against a colleague.

Although Wilkinson did not explicitly name Lehrmann, Lehrmann asserted that he was clearly identifiable in the broadcast, claiming that it had damaged his reputation.

Network Ten relied on two defences: substantial truth and qualified privilege. Justice Lee upheld the substantial truth defence, but found that the qualified privilege defence had failed.

The Application of Defamation Law

Defamation law in Australia aims to protect individuals from unwarranted harm to their reputation caused by false statements.

Governed by both common law and statutory provisions, Australian defamation law strives to balance the protection of personal reputation with the freedom of expression, whilst simultaneously recognising the significance of public interest and fair commentary in a democratic society.

Decision

In this case, the Court rigorously applied the law to evaluate the accuracy of Wilkinson's comments and their effects on Lehrmann's reputation.

Network Ten and Wilkson relied on the truth defence, highlighting the critical role of responsible journalism and accurate reporting.

Justice Michael Lee of the Federal Court of Australia, found in favour of Network Ten and Wilkinson, and determined that on the balance of probabilities, Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins.

Justice Lee concluded that Lehrmann and Higgins did have sexual intercourse, which Higgins did not consent to due to her inebriated and semi-conscious state.

Justice Lee characterised Lehrmann as a "persistent, self-interested liar" and found that while Higgins also had credibility issues, those issues appeared to stem from her trying to reconstruct and recall a traumatic event.

As these proceedings were civil proceedings, Justice Lee's decision did not equate to a criminal conviction. Lehrmann's criminal trial was halted in October 2022 due to juror misconduct. The charges against Lehrmann were eventually dropped, reportedly due to concerns about Higgins' mental health. A second criminal trial is unlikely to follow.

In concluding his judgment, Justice Lee said (in reference to Lehrmann's abandoned criminal trial in the Australian Capital Territory and the subsequent commencement of the defamation proceedings), that "Having escaped the lion's den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat".

Justice Lee stated in his judgment that "Mr Lehrmann has now been found, at the civil standard of proof, to have committed a great wrong. It follows that Ms Higgins has been proven to be a victim of sexual assault".

Lehrmann's solicitors ran the case on a "no win no fee" basis (meaning that he will not be required to pay his own lawyers), however Lehrmann has been ordered to pay the costs of Network Ten and Wilkinson. The trial is estimated to have cost between $8-10 million. The exact amount that Lehrmann will be liable to pay will be worked out by a referee and the matter is next before the Court later in May.

Justice Lee has also granted Lehrmann an extension until 31 May 2024 to lodge an appeal.

Consequences of this Decision

The case of Bruce Lehrmann v Network Ten will have profound consequences for the future application of defamation law in Australia. It stresses the complexity of defamation law and the ethical responsibilities of media entities.

This case highlights the necessity for strong legal structures that balance the protection of an individual's reputation with freedom of expression.

By examining the details of this case, valuable lessons can be learned about the changing dynamics of media ethics and the importance of balanced, responsible journalism in today's society.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

Mondaq uses cookies on this website. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies as set out in our Privacy Policy.

Learn More