News Corp and Maiden, both of whom are represented by Melbourne lawyer Renee Enbom, KC, filed a joint defense on Tuesday night that was released hours later.
In their written defenses, Ten and News Corp join Wilkinson in arguing that the court should not grant Lehrmann’s request to extend a one-year statute of limitations for filing a libel claim.
The interviews central to the lawsuits, which marked Higgins’ first public remarks, were published two years ago. The issue of the statute of limitations is expected to be addressed at a preliminary hearing on March 16. The parties will attend an initial case management hearing on Wednesday.
If the court grants the time extension and the case goes to trial, Ten, Wilkinson and News Corp have indicated they will seek to rely on a range of defenses, including truth and qualified privilege — a defense related to public interest publications where a publisher acted reasonably.
One of the issues in the case is whether Lehrmann was identified by the publications. Neither News Corp nor Ten named Lehrmann, but he was subsequently named in the media in August 2021 after being accused of having sexual intercourse without consent.
He pleaded not guilty to the charge. His trial was aborted last October due to juror misconduct and the charges were later dropped in full due to concerns about Higgins’ mental health. Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence.
Ten and News Corp deny in their written defense that they identified Lehrmann.
If the court rules that Lehrmann has been identified by the broadcast, Ten and News Corp admit to conveying the defamatory claims his lawyers alleged, including the central claim of rape.
In support of their defense of the truth, Ten and News Corp have laid out a series of particulars, including the claim that “there was a substantial and marked imbalance in power and experience between Lehrmann and Higgins” when she took office in March 2019 after a stint in Reynolds’ office . in the office of then Secretary of State Steve Ciobo.
By then, Lehrmann had “worked for Reynolds for at least a year” and was the oldest member of staff in the office next to the chief of staff, the defense says, while Higgins was the youngest.
Ten’s lawyers also say Lehrmann “conceived to meet Higgins” on March 2, 2019, at the Kingston Hotel in Canberra with a senior media adviser to his boss, Reynolds.
“Higgins understood that her meeting (with the senior media consultant) … was a form of interview, for the purpose of meeting and getting to know members of Reynolds’ team better,” the defense said.
“In fact, unbeknownst to Higgins, the meeting… was not a job interview at all, but rather arranged at Lehrmann’s behest because Lehrmann thought Higgins was physically attractive and he asked (the media consultant)… to get Higgins out invite you for a drink.
“Higgins was subsequently offered and accepted a position as an administrative officer and junior media adviser in Reynolds’ parliamentary office, which she began in early mid-March 2019.”
Should the case go to trial and the defense of truth be considered, Ten, Wilkinson and News Corp will have to prove on the basis of probability – meaning more likely than not – that Lehrmann raped Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.
While this is beyond reasonable doubt less onerous than the criminal standard of evidence, the so-called Briginshaw Principle applies in civil cases involving serious charges and requires courts to exercise caution when making serious findings.
Unlike a criminal trial, Lehrmann has no right to remain silent and a judge can draw negative conclusions if he does not testify. He is expected to appear on the witness stand and be questioned by attorneys for Ten, Wilkinson and News Corp. Higgins is expected to be subpoenaed to testify at the trial, should it go ahead.
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