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Friday, May 24, 2024

Ten slammed over conduct in Lehrmann defamation suit

A lawyer for Ten was discourteous and misleading to claim the network had been “vindicated” despite successfully defending Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation, a judge has said.

Federal Court Justice Michael Lee took issue with a range of conduct including statements made by Ten lawyer Justin Quill in the immediate aftermath of the ruling.

“I made it perfectly plain that what occurred in this case was that the respondents fell well short of a standard of reasonableness in the credulous way they went about reporting these allegations,” he told the court.

Mr Quill made statements outside the court, despite not having read the judgment in full, saying the way defamation trials pick apart journalists’ work is “divorced from reality”.

Justice Lee took submissions during a hearing on Wednesday over how much Lehrmann should be forced to pay following his failed defamation suit against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.

Ten and Wilkinson separately retained some of the nation’s most highly sought-after legal representation, which could skyrocket Lehrmann’s liability for repaying their costs into the millions.

However, Justice Lee noted there were still various actions by the network and Wilkinson with which his judgment took issue.

Among the issues he raised were repeated assertions Brittany Higgins was left to cope without support by her former boss Senator Linda Reynolds and her chief-of-staff Fiona Brown and equating their termination of Lehrmann’s job with “protecting a pedophile”.

“Ms Wilkinson in some respects went even further repeating an allegation that Ms Brown and Senator Reynolds were active participants in a systemic cover-up of alleged criminal conduct,” Justice Lee said.

Lehrmann sued the network and Wilkinson over a February 2021 report aired on The Project, which he argued ruined his reputation by falsely claiming he raped Brittany Higgins in a Parliament House office almost two years earlier.

The 28-year-old lost the case after Justice Lee found, on the balance of probabilities, Lehrmann did in fact rape Ms Higgins and later lied about it repeatedly, including throughout the defamation proceedings.

“Having escaped the lions’ den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat,” Justice Lee said in his ruling in April.

In submissions on costs made public last Tuesday, Ten’s lawyers described Lehrmann pursuing the claim as “deliberately wicked and calculated”.

“Mr Lehrmann engaged in an abuse of the court’s processes, ran a case based on positive falsities, and put Network Ten to the cost of defending a baseless proceeding,” barrister Matt Collins KC wrote.

However, Lehrmann’s barrister David Helvadjian contended he acted reasonably in bringing the lawsuit to vindicate his reputation, despite the result.

“(The) allegation was of serious criminal conduct, the allegation had not been established in any criminal proceedings, the respondents bore the onus of proof, and (Lehrmann) disputed the truth of the allegation,” he wrote.

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