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Yet another twist in Australia’s most talked-about, dragged-out court case

The I’s were dotted, the T’s crossed and it sat in a judge’s office waiting to be read out on Thursday.

Apr 03, 2024, updated Apr 03, 2024
Lawyer Steven Whybrow (left) and former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehmann arrive at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Lawyer Steven Whybrow (left) and former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehmann arrive at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

But the high-stakes judgment in Bruce Lehrmann’s lawsuit against Network Ten won’t see the light of day just yet after an extraordinary bid to reopen the defamation case on eve of its ultimate ruling.

Federal Court Justice Michael Lee on Tuesday night accepted Ten’s last-minute bid to admit fresh evidence.

The evidence suggests Mr Lehrmann, a former political staffer, abused a court process concerning text messages of Brittany Higgins, who he denies raping in a Parliament House office in 2019.

Justice Lee said the evidence could change the determination of the case and agreed with Ten that it went further than drawing Mr Lehrmann’s credibility into question.

“This is clearly fresh evidence,” Justice Lee said.

The reopening of the case means the parties will return on Thursday and Friday to hear from new witness and former television producer Taylor Auerbach.

Mr Auerbach is due to tell how he came into possession of text messages between Ms Higgins and her former boyfriend, provided in another court case involving Mr Lehrmann.

The producer had worked to secure an exclusive interview with Mr Lehrmann for network rival Seven in 2023, later revealed in court to have involved a $100,000 in-kind payment.

Ten’s barrister, Dr Matthew Collins KC, on Tuesday suggested the “deeply personal exchanges” were provided by Mr Lehrmann in breach of a longstanding legal rule known as the Harman undertaking.

That requires material provided under compulsory court order to only be used for the purpose for which it was provided.

Mr Lehrmann, through his lawyer, urged Justice Lee to dismiss the last-minute application.

“This stuff is trivial, it’s just not relevant and to give leave to reopen on that sort of material would be inappropriate,” Matthew Richardson SC said.

Justice Lee, who quipped during Tuesday’s urgent hearing that he thought he’d finished his work on this case last week, will hear the evidence from Thursday afternoon.

He remained hopeful of delivering his judgment next week but would confirm on Monday, he said.

The last-minute hearing came after Ten filed its bid to reopen the case on Easter Sunday.

The case, brought by Mr Lehrmann, concerns a February 2021 report by journalist Lisa Wilkinson on The Project where Ms Higgins was interviewed about her alleged rape in a Parliament House office in Canberra in March 2019.

Mr Lehrmann is seeking extensive damages, saying those reports have destroyed his reputation.

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