Brittany Higgins appeared timid and nervous before revealing, under cross-examination, that she was handed a $2.3million compensation payout from the Federal government – and personally pocketed $1.9million.
It would have been clear to Ms Higgins, who has had many opportunities to detail how much she was paid for personal injury claim, that revealing what she was paid was essentially detonating a political bomb.
She reached a settlement with the government in December last year, just one day after Bruce Lehrmann’s criminal trial collapsed, but the figure she was paid was never disclosed because the Albanese government claimed it was ‘confidential’.
The money was to cover 40 years of economic loss – because she claimed she would never be able to work again.
Questions were repeatedly asked by media outlets and members of the Coalition as to how much she received, and why it was paid when the allegations remained unproven.
It became clear the amount may never be released, and Ms Higgins got sick of the speculation.
2GB host Ben Fordham reported in February that the compensation claim was ‘up to $3million’, and Ms Higgins fired back on X, threatening ‘legal action’ against media outlets that continued to report the sum.
She didn’t correct the figure. Instead, she wrote: ‘This headline is just plain wrong.’
Brittany Higgins is pictured outside court on Tuesday, with her best friend Emma Webster (left) and her fiance David Sharaz (back) and lawyer Leon Zwier (right)
Brittany Higgins is pictured leaving the Federal Court in Sydney on Tuesday
‘I started the legal process with the Coalition Govt in early 2022. The settlement was well below the reported figure the media has run with – let alone beyond it?
‘I’m going to have to start taking legal action against media outlets,’ she said.
How she intended to take legal action is unclear – it’s not illegal to publish speculative figures in a matter like this, nor is it defamatory.
And during Mr Lehrmann’s defamation proceedings in the Federal Court on Tuesday, we found out that Fordham’s report wasn’t too far off the mark.
Mr Lehrmann’s barrister finished Ms Higgins’ cross-examination with questions about the compensation payout – and she appeared to try and dodge the issue.
Lisa Wilkinson’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou objected to the question, twice, but Justice Michael Lee said: ‘I will allow it.’
Mr Whybrow then asked if Ms Higgins had received more than $2million.
‘It has been widely reported that you received over $2million as a result of the outcome of that mediation, is that correct?’ Mr Whybrow asked.
‘That’s what’s been reported?,’ Ms Higgins replied.
‘Yes, I received money from the Commonwealth. They came to an agreement that a failure of a duty of care was made. And they did pay me,’ she said.
Mr Whybrow said: ‘I asked you if it was over $2million.’
In February, Ms Higgins threatened legal action against media outlets that reported her compensation claim incorrectly
She tried to explain that the offer and what she got were different, after taxes and legal fees.
Mr Whybrow became defiant. It was plainly clear what he was asking, but she wasn’t answering the question.
‘How much money did the Commonwealth pay you to stop you litigating this matter?’ he asked.
‘I received $1.9million,’ Ms Higgins replied.
‘So you’ve got no idea what your legal costs were or what the gross settlement sum was?’ Mr Whybrow asked.
‘I think it was around $2.3million. I think it was the amount and then those taxes and then the lawyer took some, but I’m not sure what that fee was. I was never focused on that fee. It was only what I received that I cared about.’
The stakes for Mr Lehrmann are high – if it’s found that he most likely didn’t rape Ms Higgins, he stands to gain compensation and his reputation back.
For the Federal government, the stakes are even higher.
If Mr Lehrmann wins, Labor will have to answer questions about why more than two million dollars of taxpayer’s money was handed to someone who, on the balance of probability, wasn’t raped.
Bruce Lehrmann is pictured outside the Federal Court on Tuesday
Significant claims brought against the Commonwealth can only be settled with the agreement of the Attorney-General – currently Mark Dreyfus – according to the Legal Services Directions.
Finance Minister Katy Gallagher – whose department paid the sum – also came under fire during Question Time in June when she was accused of knowing about Ms Higgins’ allegations before the were published on news.com.au and aired on The Project in February 2021.
In June 2021, she told the senate that she didn’t have ‘any knowledge’ of the allegations prior to when they were published and broadcast.
In June this year, she admitted having some prior information but insisted she ‘wasn’t aware of the full allegations’ before they went to air, but would not say whether she had a transcript of the interview before it was broadcast.
She insisted answering that question would breach Ms Higgins’ confidence.
However, Daily Mail Australia then revealed she appeared to have read the full transcript of Ms Higgins’ television interview – four days before the program went to air.
At 7.10pm on February 11, 2021, Mr Sharaz texted Ms Higgins: ‘Katy Gallagher messaged me. She’s angry and wants to help. She’s got the context. Says they knew something was wrong because they fired Bruce and not you. They avoided a scandal.’
Katy Gallagher (pictured) grilled the Coalition over the handling of Ms Higgins’ complaints
Ms Higgins replied: ‘Can I see her message?’
Mr Sharaz said: ‘Yep! I gave her [The Project] interview for context. I hope that’s okay? She’s not doing anything with it. But I’m also happy to step out and let her talk to you if you want.
‘Basically, I wanted her to get all the context because it’s so complicated.’
It also appeared Mr Sharaz and Ms Higgins planned to get help from Ms Gallagher all along.
Mr Sharaz, Ms Higgins, Lisa Wilkinson and Ten producer Angus Llewellyn had a five-hour recorded meeting in January 2021, a few weeks before The Project episode went to air.
In that meeting, the group spoke about whether they had ‘friendly MPs’ to grill the then-Morrison government, and Mr Sharaz said ‘I’ve got a friend in Labor, Katy Gallagher on the Labor side, who will probe and continue it going’.
‘Sitting week, story comes out they have to answer questions in Question Time, it’s a mess for them. That’s why Britt’s picked that timeline,’ he said.
It was then revealed that Mr Sharaz invited Katy Gallagher to his wedding to his ex-wife in 2018. However, she did not attend.
Brittany Higgins is pictured, left, on the day Bruce Lehrmann’s rape trial was aborted in October last year
Ms Higgins’ settlement was reached in December last year, just one day after Bruce Lehrmann’s criminal trial collapsed, but the figure was never disclosed because the Albanese government claimed it was ‘confidential’.
The compensation was based on her claims that she was not supported by her former bosses, Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash, after she she disclosed her rape allegations to them.
They both deny failing to support Ms Higgins.
Her claims were for general damages, past economic loss and assistance with future domestic duties, and future economic loss based on claims she would not be able to work in politics for 40 years.
In court on Tuesday, Mr Whybrow asked Ms Higgins if it was her understanding that part of the claim was that she ‘would not be able to work again effectively for the rest of your life?’.
Ms Higgins replied: ‘I believe it was 40 years.’
She stepped off the witness stand on Tuesday afternoon, marking the end of her cross-examination.
Ms Higgins appeared relieved. There won’t be such feelings within the Albanese government.
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.