Brittany Higgins has tearfully described the moment she alleges she was sexually assaulted by Bruce Lehrmann, telling a court that she woke up on a couch in Parliament House with him on top of her.
Ms Higgins returned to the witness stand in the Federal Court on Wednesday in Mr Lehrmann’s legal battle with Lisa Wilkinson and Network 10.
Mr Lehrmann is suing Ms Wilkinson and Network 10 for defamation over allegations made by Ms Higgins during a The Project interview that aired on February 15, 2021.
Mr Lehrmann has consistently denied Ms Higgins’ allegation that he sexually assaulted her in senator Linda Reynolds’ office in Parliament House in the early hours of March 23, 2019.
Ten’s barrister Matt Collins foreshadowed that Ms Higgins would give “graphic and distressing” evidence about the alleged sexual assault.
Ms Higgins told the court that when she entered Senator Reynolds’ suite she went and sat on a ledge overlooking the Prime Minister’s courtyard.
Asked about her next recollection, she said: “I woke up in the minister’s suite.
“So the first thing I remember when I woke up was a pain in my leg, that was the thing that stirred me up” Ms Higgins told the court, fighting back tears.
“Bruce was on top of me.
“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. He was having sex with me at that point in time and that was what I first woke up to.”
She told the court she repeatedly told him no.
“I told him no, on a loop,” Ms Higgins said.
“I don’t know how many times I said it. I told him to stop. I couldn’t scream for some reason. It was trapped in my throat, I couldn’t do it.”
Asked about her attempts to scream, Ms Higgins said: “I was saying no and telling him to stop, and there was an urgency to it.
“But I couldn’t scream like you see in horror movies. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
She said she remembered him “getting up and he looked at me and he left”.
She said she passed out before waking up the next morning to the light coming through the window before throwing up in the minister’s bathroom and taking an Uber home.
She told the court that she spent all weekend in bed, didn’t leave her room and ordered UberEats.
“I was crying hysterically, I was distraught,” Ms Higgins told the court.
She said she only emerged when she had to go to work on Monday.
Ms Higgins admitted she gave incorrect evidence in Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial about what she did with the white dress she was wearing on the night she alleges he raped her.
“I was wrong about that period of time in the criminal case. I thought it was longer than what it actually was,” she said.
“It was under my bed for about six weeks before I wore it one more time and then never wore it again.”
Ms Higgins said the last time she wore the dress was for Senator Linda Reynolds’ birthday.
When giving evidence during Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial in October last year, Ms Higgins said the dress was under her bed for six months.
The court was told that on the Tuesday after the alleged attack she emailed Mr Lehrmann after being given a task by Senator Reynolds.
She wrote in the email: “Hi Bruce, I’m phoning a friend – need some help with the task Drew set me. I’m hoping to utilise your Parliamentary network to get portfolio stats from whichever offices you can … Would you mind maybe helping out by chance?”
Asked why she used the word ‘friend’, she told the court that she was trying to “defuse the situation” and make it “as normal as possible”.
“I was still in denial about everything and I needed help with a work thing,” Ms Higgins said.
She said she later saw Mr Lehrmann pack up his box and leave the office before she was called into a meeting with Senator Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown.
She said it was in that meeting that she first disclosed the sexual assault allegation.
Ms Higgins said she disclosed that she was “drunk” and Mr Lehrmann was “on top of me”.
She said Ms Brown said to her “Oh God”, and she was “shocked and upset”.
Ms Brown gave her a number for the Employee Assistance Program; however, Ms Higgins was later told that she couldn’t get an appointment with a psychologist for several months.
She took the rest of the day off.
She said throughout the day she continued to process the incident in her mind and was “terrified” of becoming the centre of a story.
“I wanted to keep on track, my job meant everything to me, I loved it. I wanted to keep it,” Ms Higgins said.
“It was of primary importance. I wanted to report to police, but I wanted to do it in a way that could somehow protect my privacy.”
She told the court that later that day she made a disclosure to an ex-boyfriend, Ben Dillaway.
Ms Higgins also told the court that she spoke to her father on the phone on the Tuesday afternoon.
At that stage her father was planning to come to Canberra to visit her that weekend, but she did not disclose the sexual assault allegation to him.
She said she told her father: “I was having a really hard time, I was really excited to see him. I think I may have on the phone call said that something bad had happened at work but we’ll talk about it later.”
‘WERE YOU RAPED?’
Ms Higgins told the court that on the Wednesday after the alleged rape, she confided in a colleague, Nikita Irvine, while they went for a walk.
But she said on the Thursday, she was told by another colleague, department liaison officer Christopher Payne, that she had been found naked in the minister’s office in the middle of the night.
She said she was not aware of that information and it caused her to be “shocked” and “upset”.
“He point blank asked me ‘were you raped’ … I cried and I said ‘yes’,” Ms Higgins told Wednesday’s hearing.
She told the court that she later had a meeting with Senator Reynolds and Ms Brown in the senator’s office.
Ms Higgins told the court that she was “traumatised and “distraught” at being back in the room where she alleges she was raped.
She said that in the meeting Senator Reynolds apologised to her, told her “these are things women go through”, asked to be kept informed if she went to police.
She later made first contact with police.
THE BRUISE PHOTO
Ms Higgins told the court on Wednesday that she was told in another meeting with Ms Brown on April 3 that during the Federal election she could work out of Western Australia or move back to the Gold Coast to be near family.
She said she was asked: “During the election where would you want to be? You can go to WA or you can go home to the Gold Coast.”
“I said I’d obviously want to be near my family, that would be great,” Ms Higgins said.
“And she said they would pay me out to go to the Gold Coast but I wouldn’t be working.”
After asking how she would come back to work should she go back to Queensland, Ms Higgins says she was told: “Well you wouldn’t”.
She described it as a “pivotal” conversation.
Ms Higgins told the court that on the same day she entered a bathroom in Parliament House and took a photo of a bruise on her leg.
She said that she wasn’t sure how she suffered the bruise - either in the alleged sexual assault or while falling down while out drinking - and that she turned up the contrast on the photo.
She told the court that around the time that she decided to go to Western Australia to work on the election, she notified police that she would not be pursuing a formal complaint.
However, she told the court that in 2021 she decided to make a public statement and speak to journalists after seeing other stories about the treatment of women.
“I couldn’t be silent about it anymore because I felt like it wasn’t just me, it was so many other people,” Ms Higgins said.
“When it became clear it was a pattern at that point I couldn’t sit on it anymore, it made me feel sick just knowing I was complicit in this, their cover-ups and their silence because I hadn’t called it out.”
THE NIGHT OF ALLEGED RAPE
She invited Mr Lehrmann, as well as other Parliament House staff in Senator Reynolds’ office, to The Dock on the evening of March 22.
She said she went home after work and had a drink of wine before heading to the pub.
She told the court that she had no recollection of how much she drank at The Dock; however, she said from viewing CCTV she knew she had 11 vodka drinks.
Asked if she had any water or non-alcoholic drinks during that period, Ms Higgins said, “I don’t believe so.”
She said she also ate one slice of pizza.
Asked about her alcohol consumption that night, she said: “It was a lot … It was excessive and an abnormality.”
She said she introduced Mr Lehrmann to the group when he arrived and later spoke with him at the bar.
She said she got progressively more drunk throughout the night to the point that she was getting “messy” and slurring her words.
“I’m embarrassed talking about it, I was very drunk,” Ms Higgins told the court.
The group – Austin Wenke, Lauren Gain, Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins – then travelled via cab to another bar, 88MPH.
Ms Higgins recalled drinking in a corner booth, including doing one shot, and dancing by herself on the dance floor.
She said at 88MPH Mr Lehrmann put his arm around her shoulder and touched her thigh.
Ms Higgins told the court that she tolerated his movements but didn’t “snap at him” and tell him to stop, describing it as being in her “field of tolerance”.
“I felt he was being handsy,” Ms Higgins said.
UBER TO PARLIAMENT
She told the court that she agreed to share an Uber with Mr Lehrmann before he said he needed to stop off at Parliament House to pick something up.
Asked why she got out when they got to parliament, she said she didn’t know why.
She said she may have assumed she got out because the Uber trip only had one destination plugged in.
“He was never specific about what he was picking up,” Ms Higgins said.
“He has said something different into the intercom, I had no idea what he was picking up.”
Ms Higgins became tearful at one point during her evidence.
Asked about her state of intoxication at the time, she said: “It was extreme, it was very extreme … 15 minutes ago I had fallen up stairs, I was very drunk.”
Mr Lehrmann, during his evidence, told the court that he went into parliament to pick up his keys and make ministerial notes.
He also said he and Ms Higgins went their separate ways once they went into Senator Reynolds’ office.
Ms Higgins told the court on Wednesday that Mr Lehrmann attempted to kiss her at a Canberra pub while drinking with colleagues from Senator Reynolds’ office on March 16.
“He took a step forward and he tried to kiss me on the lips,” Ms Higgins told the court.
“I apologised, I was shocked, I said no and he seemed embarrassed and I just assumed I’d led him on.”
Ms Higgins told the court that at the time she was worried she gave him the “wrong impression”.
She said Mr Lehrmann left shortly after, as his cab pulled up.
During his evidence, Mr Lehrmann denied attempting to kiss Ms Higgins at the pub.
‘STAY FOR ANOTHER DRINK’
Ms Higgins told the court that she first met Mr Lehrmann at a Canberra pub on March 2.
After MP Steve Ciobo announced that he was about to retire from parliament, Ms Higgins contacted a member of Senator Reynolds’ staff after it emerged that she would take over the defence industry portfolio.
Ms Higgins told the court on Wednesday that she met the members of Senator Reynolds’ staff at a pub on the Friday afternoon after the senator was sworn in as a cabinet minister.
She said she met Mr Lehrmann for the first time at the Kingston Hotel that afternoon.
“At one point Mr Lehrmann took my phone in jest so I couldn’t leave,” Ms Higgins said.
She added that she was told to “stay for another drink” by Mr Lehrmann.
She told the court at the time that she was attempting to order an Uber so that she could go meet a friend.
Ms Higgins said that at the time: “I thought it was a joke.”
She said she had another drink before leaving.
The following Monday she was officially offered the job in Senator Reynolds’ office.
During his evidence, Mr Lehrmann denied that he had taken Ms Higgins’ phone during the meeting at the pub.
Ms Higgins told the court that in the early days of her time in Senator Reynolds’ office, she felt like she was treated like Mr Lehrmann’s “secretary”.
“I was kind of treated like his secretary to be honest … He would give me tasks and I would do them,” Ms Higgins told the court on Wednesday.
“I felt like I was his secretary, to an extent.”
She said she was given tasks by Mr Lehrmann including moving a fridge and rearranging a phone directory.
HIGGINS TAKES THE STAND
During about five minutes of evidence on Tuesday afternoon, Ms Higgins told the court that she grew up on the Gold Coast before completing a degree in communications and business.
Asked by Dr Collins whether she grew up supporting the Liberal Party, Ms Higgins told the court: “I grew up in Queensland so for me that was kind of a given.”
The court was told that midway through her university degree she began working for a Gold Coast-based Queensland state MP.
Through a friend in the Young Liberals, Ms Higgins gained employment in the Canberra office of MP Steven Ciobo in September 2018 as front-of-house staff and an assistant media adviser.
“I wanted to work my way up through the ranks, I wanted to be a media adviser, I wanted to be a press sec,” Ms Higgins told the court.
Dr Collins told the court that Network 10 would call more than 20 witnesses, including Ms Higgins’ friends, family and colleagues.
He said Ms Higgins had at least 12 vodka drinks on the evening of the alleged assault and he could call expert evidence that she would have had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.23 at the time.
Dr Collins also attacked Mr Lehrmann’s theory that Ms Higgins invented the rape allegations in order to save her job after seeing him packing up his belongings when he was dismissed for entering Parliament House after hours.
“First and foremost it would be a monstrous thing, as Ms Higgins herself will tell you, to fabricate an allegation of rape,” Dr Collins said.
In June last year, ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucy McCallum delayed the start of Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial after Ms Wilkinson gave a Logies acceptance speech referencing Ms Higgins.
Mr Lehrmann has alleged, as part of the proceedings, that the speech prejudiced his right to a fair trial.
The court was told that Mr Lehrmann took part in two interviews with Channel 7’s Spotlight program earlier this year.
And in return Seven paid his rent from June 2023 until June 2024, the court was told.
However, Mr Lehrmann said he wasn’t sure how much he had received by way of free accommodation.
“Network Seven handled the accommodation,” Mr Lehrmann said.
Ms Wilkinson’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC on Tuesday questioned Mr Lehrmann about answers that he gave to journalist Liam Bartlett during his second Spotlight interview.
The court was told that in the Spotlight interview, Mr Lehrmann was asked about comments made by his solicitor Steve Whybrow that he was close to being convicted and that if it weren’t for the Logies speech delay he would have been in “more trouble”.
The court was told that in the Spotlight interview, Mr Lehrmann said: “Well it afforded us the opportunity to dig deeper, go down the rabbit holes, find the golden nuggets.”
Ms Chrysanthou asked: “So what I want to suggest to you is rather than feel upset at my client … that she engaged in conduct which had a prejudicial impact on your criminal trial, you actually think that the delay caused by the Logies speech saved you from conviction.”
“No, I disagree,” Mr Lehrmann replied.
Mr Lehrmann stood trial in the ACT Supreme Court last year after pleading not guilty to one count of sexual assault, but the trial was aborted due to juror misconduct.
The charges were subsequently dropped and no findings have been made against him.
The trial continues.