Former Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has recanted her Supreme Court evidence that she was never told by a chief of staff that Brittany Higgins had disclosed “I remember him on top of me”.
In a statement to news.com.au, Senator Reynolds has revealed for the first time that she now accepts that her chief of staff Fiona Brown‘s evidence at the trial was correct and she did inform her of the alarming comment before meeting with the young staffer.
The revelation emerged after Senator Reynolds appeared to change her evidence on the Spotlight program, a fact that went unremarked during the television special.
Senator Reynolds stressed that her evidence was to the best of her recollection at the time but without the benefit of speaking to her former chief of staff Fiona Brown.
Like any witness in a criminal trial, Senator Reynolds was unable to discuss her recollections with Ms Brown until after she had given evidence and never knew that she had a different recollection.
However, the WA Senator confirmed she now had been fortunate enough to speak to Ms Brown and that had prompted “a recall of further information.”
“Since the trial, Senator Reynolds has had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Ms Brown, which has prompted our client’s recall of further information,‘’ Senator Reynolds’ legal firm Bennett said in a statement.
“Having reflected further on this issue and with the benefit of discussing with Ms Brown, Senator Reynolds now recalls this conversation and, therefore, during the Spotlight interview, Senator Reynolds relayed this point to Liam Bartlett.”
Her legal team stressed that Senator Reynolds had been unable to speak to Ms Brown about her recollections for many years until after the trial.
“Witnesses in legal proceedings are directed not to discuss their evidence with one another prior to trial,‘’ the statement said.
“Accordingly, when Senator Reynolds gave evidence at the trial, which was to the best of her recollection and having followed this direction, she was not aware of Fiona Brown’s version of events or recollection.
“It is not unusual for witnesses who have acted properly to have different recollections. This simply demonstrates that they have not compared notes and changed their evidence to match the other’s recollection of an event that occurred (in this case) over 3 years previous.”
One of the striking moments in the trial of Bruce Lehrmann was always the contradiction in the evidence of former Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and her chief of staff.
Both women were asked when they first became aware of a potential sexual element after Brittany Higgins was found naked in a ministerial office.
They gave two different stories.
Last year, Senator Reynolds insisted under oath that she was initially told it was a security incident involving two staff entering the office after hours.
Senator Reynolds then took the stand on day 10 of the trial, on Monday, October 17. Ms Brown had already given evidence.
The contradiction was the first question that the Director of Public Prosecutions asked after he sought permission from the court to effectively cross examine her as a hostile witness.
“I am going to suggest that you knew that there was a sexual element the previous Saturday?,‘’ Mr Drumgold said.
“No, I did not,‘’ Senator Reynolds replied.
“I am suggesting to you that you were aware that Ms Higgins had made an allegation about Mr Lehrmann being on top of her at this stage?,‘’ Me Drumgold continued.
“I was not,‘’ she replied.
Ms Brown, who was hailed as one of the most important witnesses at the trial by the defence team, had a different recollection to her former boss.
She recalled that she told Senator Reynolds before the meeting on the Thursday or the Friday that Ms Higgins had told her that she remembered Mr Lehrmann being “on top of her.” The April 1 meeting was on the following Monday.
During an interview with Spotlight‘s Liam Bartlett on Sunday night, Senator Reynolds appeared to recant her evidence at the trial and suggested she was told of Ms Higgins comments.
Despite the fact the statement was at odds with her evidence at the trial, the stunning backflip appeared to go completely unnoticed by Bartlett, who offered no further follow up questions and failed to notice Senator Reynolds was revealing for the first time that she was informed of Ms Higgins comments.
Senator Reynolds‘ law firm stressed that the substantive point that Ms Higgins, who was found naked in the room, had not used what Spotlight program described as “the R word’ – rape.
At the time, Ms Higgins had told her chief of staff Fiona Brown she remembered him “on top of me” and had told another colleague in the office that she was so drunk she could not possibly have consented. Senator Reynolds and Ms Brown were so alarmed they had urged her to speak to the police.
“Notably, Ms Brown’s evidence at trial. confirms Ms Higgins had not made any allegation of rape prior to the 1 April meeting,‘’ Senator Reynolds law firm stated.
Court transcripts of Ms Brown‘s evidence at the trial reveal that Ms Higgins made disclosures in stages.
At a subsequent meeting between Ms Brown and Ms Higgins on Thursday 28 March 2019, she made a further comment.
“And Brittany said, ‘Thanks,’ and as she got up and walked out, she turned around and she said words to me that I – she says, ‘I remember him on top of me.’
“And I said, ‘Oh. Oh my god.’ I said, ‘Are you all right? Has – has something happened you didn’t want to have happen?’ And she just sort of looks at me and sort of goes like this, with her – so I can’t say the word, but she’s shaking her head as a ‘no,’ but she’s not – but she’s composed and I said, ‘Do you – do you want to talk? Can I do something? Do you want to make a report? Has something happened?’ And she said, ‘I just want to talk to my dad,’ and ‘My dad’s coming down on the weekend.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay, well, that’s good. Okay, well, we are here if you want to do anything, we are here.’ And – and she seemed composed.
Senator Reynolds‘ legal team said that “the short point, and consistent with Senator Reynolds’ answer to Liam Bartlett’s question on Spotlight, is at the time of the 1 April meeting, Ms Higgins had not made any allegation of rape to Ms Brown or to Senator Reynolds.”
Despite the failure to use “the R word”, Ms Brown said that Senator Reynolds was insistent that Ms Higgins should go to the police and wanted Ms Brown to report it even without Ms Higgins consent. The idea alarmed Ms Brown.
“Am I supposed to go and accuse a young man of a criminal offence without the female telling me she was raped?”, Ms Brown told The Australian newspaper.
Instead, she sought advice from the Department of Finance laying out the preferred approach to ensure Ms Higgins had agency in the matter and to argue against Senator Reynolds‘ suggestions they go to police without Ms Higgins consent.
Former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann was charged but never convicted. The trial was aborted as a result of juror misconduct. He maintains his innocence.