Justice Lee's Ruling Debunks Rape Myths, Encourages Survivors

In a landmark ruling, Justice Lee dismissed Bruce Lehrmann's defamation suit, finding he sexually assaulted Brittany Higgins, setting a precedent on consent and trauma-informed approach to sexual assault cases.

Geeta Pillai
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Justice Lee's Ruling Debunks Rape Myths, Encourages Survivors

Justice Lee's Ruling Debunks Rape Myths, Encourages Survivors

In a landmark judgment, Justice Michael Lee dismissed Bruce Lehrmann's defamation suit against Network 10 and Lisa Wilkinson, determining that Lehrmann had sexually assaulted Brittany Higgins inside the office of their then-boss Senator Linda Reynolds in Parliament House in March 2019.

The ruling articulated what constitutes rape in contemporary Australia, debunking myths about intoxication, freezing responses, and consent.

Justice Lee took a "trauma-informed approach" in his judgment, which Higgins thanked him for. The ruling recognized that reactions to assault can vary widely, setting a precedent for how courts consider the testimonies of sexual assault survivors. Lee detailed that rape does not require resistance, and that a drunken lack of protest or freezing response does not equal consent. He emphasized that sex without consent, or with reckless disregard for consent, is rape.

Why this matters: The ruling is significant in the context of ongoing debates and law reforms around affirmative consent laws in Australia, which aim to increase the chances of successful convictions by stipulating that silence is not consent and consent must be actively communicated. It encourages survivors to come forward and share their stories.

Higgins expressed gratitude for the ruling and said it is now the moment to heal after years of criminal and civil trials. "I was raped. I am not a liar. And the truth has finally been heard after five long years of criminal and civil trials," she stated. Higgins acknowledged the impact on her health, memory, and relationships, and also apologized to Senator Reynolds and her former chief of staff Fiona Brown, stating that her perceptions differed from theirs.

The case revealed issues with how the story was handled by the political class and media. Justice Lee criticized journalist Lisa Wilkinson for approaching the story as a "champion" for Higgins, and Network Ten for failing to research the story adequately. However, he rubbished claims of a political cover-up, finding that Senator Reynolds had wanted the police called and that her chief of staff had supported and assisted Higgins in contacting the police.

The ruling has encouraged survivors like Anna Coutts Trotter, founder of The Survivor Hub, who felt it was a significant moment in addressing the realities of sexual assault. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton welcomed Higgins' statement and called for further examination of the government's handling of her $2.4 million compensation payout. While Higgins acknowledged that she did not agree with all of Justice Lee's findings, she respected his observations about the many people scarred and damaged in the aftermath of her rape.

Key Takeaways

  • Justice Lee dismissed Lehrmann's defamation suit, ruling he sexually assaulted Higgins.
  • Ruling recognized varied reactions to assault, set precedent for survivor testimonies.
  • Ruling significant for ongoing debates on affirmative consent laws in Australia.
  • Higgins grateful for ruling, acknowledged impact on her but apologized to others.
  • Ruling criticized media handling of story, but rejected claims of political cover-up.