Lehrmann to pay Ten’s costs for doomed defamation case

Lehrmann arrives for his Federal Court verdict (file)

Source: AAP

Bruce Lehrmann has been ordered to pay most of Network Ten’s seven-figure legal bill after his doomed defamation case.

In April, the ex-Liberal staffer suffered a massive legal loss after the Federal Court found an allegation that he raped former colleague Brittany Higgins in a Parliament House office in March 2019 was most likely true.

The 28-year-old had sued for defamation over a February 2021 report on The Project in which journalist Lisa Wilkinson interviewed Higgins over the rape allegation.

Since the findings against Lehrmann, the parties have been in dispute over who should foot a legal bill expected to run to as much as $6 million-$8 million for the long-running and high-profile case.

On Friday afternoon, Justice Michael Lee found in favour of Ten’s application for indemnity costs. Lee said he accepted the network’s submissions that Lehrmann brought the defamation case on a “knowingly false premise”.

He said Lehrmann had defended his case on the “false basis”, lied to police” – and then allowed that lie” to go before a jury.

“He wrongly instructed his senior counsel to cross-examine the complainant of sexual assault in two legal proceedings, including relevantly for present purposes, in this case, on a knowingly false premise,” he said.

Lee said he did not believe Lehrmann’s account of why he and Higgins went to Parliament House late on that night in 2019.

“Mr Lehrmann had sexual intercourse with Ms Higgins, and yet ran a primary case … that early on 23 March 2019, he was preoccupied with noting up details as to French submarine contracts,” Lee said.

“Even if I had not reached the level of satisfaction Mr Lehrmann raped Ms Higgins … I would have declined to award costs in Mr Lehrmann’s favour.”

Lee noted “there are no real winners” in the case, and criticised Ten’s lawyers for going on a “victory tour” after his judgment was delivered in April.

“I [have] also explained that although the respondents legally justified the imputation of rape, their conduct was not justifiable in any broader sense,” he said.

But despite his concerns about Ten’s conduct, Lee said Lehrmann’s own conduct was so troubling that it justified awarding indemnity costs on the truth case, which the network won.

“Given the subject matter and the success of the substantial truth defence, the seriousness of such conduct cannot be overstated,’’ Lee said.

“It is of such a character as to justify an award of indemnity costs.”

Awarding of indemnity costs is rare, and allows a party to recoup more than it might have otherwise received under ordinary costs.

Lehrmann was ordered to pay Ten’s costs on an ordinary and indemnity basis, but he will not have to pay costs for some affidavits. The total he will owe will be determined at a hearing later in May.

Earlier in the week, the court heard Lehrmann had no financial backers and that his lawyers had agreed to take his case on a “no win, no fee” basis.

Ten will be liable to pay Wilkinson for at least a portion of the legal costs she incurred for retaining her own lawyers. The network can then claim this back against Lehrmann as part of its own expenses.

However, a referee will be appointed to examine whether Wilkinson could have avoided unnecessary costs in the way she ran her case.

The costs matter will return to the court for a case management hearing on May 27.

Lehrmann, who has indicated he may appeal the defamation ruling, has until May 31 to lodge his appeal.

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National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

– with AAP

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