Prosecutors have abandoned charges against the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins following evidence that extended trials have taken a toll on the former Liberal staffer’s mental health.
Higgins, who alleged ex-colleague Bruce Lehrmann raped her inside Parliament House in March 2019, was confirmed to have been admitted to the hospital.
ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold on Friday announced he would no longer pursue the case after receiving “compelling evidence from two independent medical experts that the ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant.”
“Whilst the pursuit of justice is essential for both my office and for the community in general, the safety of a complainant in a sexual assault matter must be paramount,” Drumgold said.
“I have made the difficult decision that it is no longer in the public interest to pursue a prosecution at the risk of the complainant’s life.”
Higgins’ close friend Emma Webster said in a statement the past two years have been “difficult and unrelenting” for Higgins.
“While it’s disappointing the trial has ended this way, Brittany’s health and safety must always come first,” she said.
“Brittany is extremely grateful for all the support she has received, particularly from our mental health care workers.”
Bruce Lehrmann was charged with sexual intercourse without consent and was on bail awaiting a new trial in the ACT Supreme Court after juror misconduct derailed the first.
He has denied the allegation and maintained the pair never had any sexual interaction.
Not The First Time Trial Was Abandoned
The latest move comes after the trial was postponed to February due to a juror’s misconduct in the October trial.
Chief Justice Lucy McCallum wrote in her decision that at least one juror had accessed research material outside of what was provided to the jury during the trial.
During a routine tidying of the jury room, one of the officers accidentally bumped one juror’s folder onto the floor.
When the officer picked it up to place it back, he noticed the title of the academic paper suggested the topic might be sexual assault, which was later confirmed.
“It is neither possible nor helpful to speculate as to the use to which this information might have been put in the jury room, if any,” McCallum said.
“[However], at the very least, the fact that the paper was located and taken into the jury room by the juror indicates that it may have influenced that juror’s contribution to the jury’s deliberations.
“The unfairness to both parties is manifest.”
Prior to the October delay, the trial was also postponed to June 27 after television host Lisa Wilkinson praised Higgins in her acceptance speech at an Australian TV award.
Australian Captial Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucy McCallum told the ACT Supreme Court that despite having received a “clear and appropriate warning” prior to the TV awards ceremony, Wilkinson proceeded to deliver an acceptance speech that “openly referred to and praised the complainant in the present trial.”
“The recent publicity does, in my view, change the landscape because of its immediacy, its intensity and its capacity to obliterate the important distinctions between an allegation that remains untested at law and one that has been accepted by a jury giving a true verdict according to the evidence,” she said.
Warnings Of Contempt Of Court
Although Higgens hasn’t achieved legal status as a victim of the alleged sexual assault crime, her case has attracted national attention following extreme media coverage of her public comments, which led the lawyers of Lehrmann to raise concerns that it may amount to contempt of the court.
“I urge all media to show restraint in reporting this matter and in particular in republishing the statements made by the complainant,” Lehrmann’s defence barrister Steve Whybrow wrote in a statement in February 2023 after Higgins spoke to the media outside of the ACT supreme court.
“I understand the complainant and other members of her support team were all seated in Court this morning when the Chief Justice discharged the jury and made strong comments about people making statements or comments that could prejudice a fair trial,” Whybrow said in a statement on behalf of Mr Lehrmann.
“Notwithstanding Her Honour’s admonition, the complainant proceeded to give what appears to have been a pre-prepared speech to the media outside the Court.
Greens Push For Parliamentary Change
After the trial was officially abandoned, the Greens Party called for the implementation of the Work Plan to Strengthen Criminal Justice Responses to Sexual Assault to make victim-survivors recorded testimony admissible.
“To end Australia’s culture of sexual violence, harassment and abuse, we must start by supporting victims to come forward and dismantling power imbalances and gender stereotypes that deter them from doing so,” said Greens Larissa Waters and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in a media statement.
Meanwhile, men’s advocate Bettina Arndt wrote in a commentary on The Epoch Times on Feb. 14 that “the case’s outcomes are all equally dismal.”
“If the defendant is found guilty in a trial whose fairness is open to question, it will send a shudder through the multitude of normal families already nervous about protecting their sons. But if he is acquitted, the cries for further changes to our legal system would be deafening,” she wrote.
Rebecca Zhu and AAP contributed to this article.