Finally a judge with a nuanced understanding of sexual assault victims.

The following article contains descriptions of sexual violence.

We expected a bombshell verdict, but what took us by surprise were the unexpected glimmers of hope peppered through the 324-page judgment in Bruce Lerhmann's defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson.

Justice Michael Lee handed down his decision yesterday, reading excerpts from his lengthy report in a meticulous explanation of the factors involved.

"Mr Lerhmann raped Ms Higgins," Justice Lee found, meaning the year-long case — in which Lerhmann alleged he had been defamed by reporting by both the Network and Lisa Wilkinson during an episode of The Project that aired in 2021 — was lost.

"I hasten to add these findings are on the balance of probabilities," Justice Lee told the court, stressing again that this was a civil case and not a criminal one. "These findings should not be misconstrued or mischaracterised."

Lehrmann claimed the episode made defamatory "imputations", including that he had "raped Brittany Higgins in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds' office in 2019".

The judgment is undoubtedly a victory for the network and Lisa Wilkinson, who outside court thanked her supporters and said she hoped the judgment would "give strength to women around the country."

Watch: Lisa Wilkinson reacts to the verdict in the defamation case. Post continues below.

Video via Network Ten.

It seems that hope may have been realised, because Justice Lee's findings involved a level of nuance rarely afforded to survivors of sexual assault in legal settings. 

It is this nuance — the willingness of Justice Lee to look past the black and white and wade into the murky grey required in complex cases such as this — that has left women all over the country with a feeling of vindication today. 

From private group chats to public Facebook groups, the consensus appears to be growing: Justice Lee just seemed to get it — and not just because of his arch and much-retweeted observation that "Mr Lehrmann seems to have made the mistake of, having escaped the lion's den, going back for his hat."

First, there was this little nugget, in which the judge elegantly dispelled one of the most common myths about consent:

Justice Lee said that although he was "not satisfied that a clear verbal protest was made" by Britney Higgins, "the suggestion that some form of active resistance is required to determine consent is misguided."

For the one in five Australian women who have experienced sexual violence — many for whom the assault came from a person known to them — this sentence is particularly important.

Sandra*, a Gold Coast woman who was raped by a man known to her after a night out in 2008 and chose not to proceed with criminal charges, says reading those words was a powerful experience.


"After my assault, during which I was frozen in a kind of numb horror, I just kept berating myself," she remembers sadly. 

"In the years since, I've learned this is a very common reaction, and also that just because I wasn't able to scream and shout, it didn't mean I consented in any way. Obviously I know this, as do many others who have been in the same situation, but to hear it from a judge, in this setting, felt — satisfying isn't the word, because it’s so f**ked up, but maybe — validating in some way?"

Next, there was Justice Lee's assessment of Brittany Higgins' behaviour in the wake of her assault, after Lehrmann's legal team pointed to the fact that she accepted a cup of coffee and exchanged emails with her rapist the following Monday. 

"I have little doubt that if she had been raped, that by the time of these interactions, it's quite conceivable that Ms Higgins would have be driven by conflicting emotions self doubt, concern she would be humiliated by word leaking out to her colleagues and the question about the prudence of the behaviour."

Justice Lee pointed out that he rejected so-called "rape myths" about how the "perfect victim" should behave — a concept of which much has been made throughout this trial and indeed almost every high-profile rape trial before it. 

Finally, and most significantly, there was Justice Lee's acceptance that Brittany Higgins told the truth about what happened to her.


Her evidence, he said, "struck me forcibly as credible and having the ring of truth."

"In the end, it comes down to my assessment that Ms Higgins was telling the truth in the witness box," he concluded.

Because as most survivors know, while the justice system is flawed and broken and we live in a country in which a man kills a woman more regularly than bin day, three little words still have power and meaning: "I believe you."

Some will claim that yesterday's verdict was justice. 

It wasn't. 

But it was a small win for the millions of women in this country who have been crying out for some legal nuance around an issue which all too many of us are familiar with. 

*Names have been changed.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here. 

Feature Image: Federal Court of Australia/Getty.