Ministers 'covering themselves' after Higgins incident

Brittany Higgins' former boss says she fought pressure from two federal ministers to make a report with police before the alleged rape survivor chose to lodge her own complaint.

Senator Linda Reynolds' former acting chief of staff Fiona Brown was working in Parliament House at the time Ms Higgins was allegedly raped by Bruce Lehrmann in March 2019.

Ms Brown has given evidence of meetings with Ms Higgins after a security incident in which the junior media adviser and Lehrmann entered Parliament House in the early hours of a Saturday. 

Lisa Wilkinson and Sue Chrysanthou SC leave the Federal Court
Sue Chrysanthou SC asked if all the ministers were worried about was covering themselves.

In the week afterwards, Ms Higgins disclosed to Ms Brown that she had awoken to find Lehrmann on top of her, the Federal Court heard during a defamation trial on Tuesday.

In the aftermath of this, Senator Reynolds and then-special minister of state Alex Hawke insisted Ms Brown notify police about what had happened rather than waiting for Ms Higgins to make a complaint, Justice Michael Lee was told.

"You were concerned that this was covering themselves, that's all they were worried about?” barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC said.

”Yes,” Ms Brown replied.

She told the court she pushed back against the request, saying Ms Higgins needed to make a personal choice about whether a formal complaint should be filed.

There were also the lives of two 23-year-olds to consider, she told the court.

“You just can't walk into a cop shop and do something like that," Ms Brown said.

Fiona Brown leaves the Federal Court
Ms Brown said there was "absolutely" no political expediency in the response to the incident.

Ms Chrysanthou is representing journalist Lisa Wilkinson, who is being sued alongside broadcaster Network Ten for defamation.

Lehrmann says the alleged rape never occurred and a February 2021 interview on The Project with Ms Higgins destroyed his reputation.

Ms Higgins claims she was sexually assaulted by her fellow Liberal staffer while she was intoxicated on Senator Reynolds' couch on March 23, 2019.

In her evidence, Ms Brown said there was "absolutely" no political expediency in the response to the incident, denying claims there had been a cover-up in an attempt to suppress Ms Higgins' allegation.

"There was no cover-up," she said.

"The police were consulted, the Department of Finance was consulted, the (Department of Parliamentary Services) knew. There was no cover-up.”

She insisted Ms Higgins never made a direct allegation of assault during meetings in the week after the two young staffers were spotted entering Parliament House after hours.

Bruce Lehmann arrives at the Federal Court
Lehrmann was dismissed because he had been warned after an earlier security breach, the court heard.

Ms Brown said she was "blindsided" by a claim Lehrmann had been on top of Ms Higgins but added she had not been informed of any allegations something criminal had occurred.

Lehrmann was dismissed after the incident because he had already been warned after an earlier security breach where he left a classified document unattended on a desk.

Ms Higgins' employment was not terminated as she was new and there had been no previous problems with her behaviour, the court was told.

Tim Reedy, an expert lip reader from the UK hired by Ten, reviewed CCTV footage of Ms Higgins, Lehrmann and other parliamentary staff at Canberra bar The Dock, where they gathered for drinks the evening before the alleged sexual assault.

Giving evidence on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Reedy said the footage suggested Lehrmann had been "plying" Ms Higgins with alcohol that night.

"I saw that the man was encouraging her, enticing her to drink everything that was on the table,” he said answering questions through a lip speaker.

Lip reader Tim Reedy leaves the Federal Court
Lip reader Tim Reedy said footage suggested Lehrmann had been "plying" Ms Higgins with alcohol.

He told the court that at one stage, Ms Higgins said "I don't want to", when offered another drink by her colleague.

The trial will resume on Thursday for closing submissions.

Lehrmann's trial in the ACT Supreme Court overs a charge of raping Ms Higgins was derailed by juror misconduct.

Prosecutors did not seek a second trial, citing concerns for Ms Higgins' mental health.

He has been charged with allegedly raping another woman twice in Toowoomba in October 2021 and remains before Queensland courts.

He has not yet entered a plea but lawyers have indicated he denies that allegation.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

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