Law Analysis

Brittany Higgins' bravery exposes struggle for women's legal rights

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Brittany Higgins' courage has brought to light the cracks in our legal system (Image by Dan Jensen)

The miscarriage of justice in the Bruce Lehrmann trial has highlighted the weakness in our democratic institutions and the betrayal of women such as Brittany Higgins, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

**Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

THE OVERARCHING message conveyed by the fallout from the Bruce Lehrmann rape trial is that those responsible for the functioning of our core democratic institutions cannot be trusted to act in anyone’s interests other than their own.

Many of us may have long suspected this to be the case. Increasingly, those suspicions are confirmed.

The warp speed at which senior politicians, senior public servants, law enforcement agencies and sympathetic media apparently rallied to cover up, obfuscate and deny the alleged 2019 rape of Brittany Higgins by Lehrmann in then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office, is mind-bending. 

The lack of concern for the alleged victim is similarly shocking. However, it shouldn’t be, given that it mirrors the justice system’s adversarial approach to matters of sexual assault. For example, the need to protect the reputation of the alleged perpetrator is the priority. The victim must be proved to be vengeful, deceitful and hopefully unstable to achieve this goal.

In the Lehrmann matter, it’s safe to assume it’s less his reputation at stake and more the reputations of ex-government ministers, up to and including then Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Ms Higgins has to be denigrated, not only to preserve the accused’s reputation but more importantly, that of the powerful institutions and the individuals who control and represent them.

The requirement that an alleged victim must be destroyed in order to establish an alleged perpetrator’s innocence is abhorrent, yet here we are.

It’s almost as if a vast protection racket swung into action minutes after Ms Higgins was found unconscious, naked and abandoned on the Defence Minister’s couch by a passing security guard. It was March. The General Election was coming up in May. Nobody associated with the then Government wanted a rape scandal in Parliament House. The alleged victim? Pffft.

In this narrative, which continues unabated in some quarters, victims are denied even the dubious status of collateral damage. On the contrary, women are dehumanised to the point where they are not perceived as having the capacity to suffer harm at all.

But wait, that’s not all. While women in this version of the story aren’t recognised as fully human, they are credited with the power to wilfully ruin lives and reputations. In short, we aren’t human enough to be harmed, but we can harm. This is arguably one of the more prevalent unconscious beliefs underlying violence against women and society’s ongoing failure to prevent it — that we are both sub-human and powerfully dangerous, so it doesn’t matter what is done to us.

Brittany Higgins has – at great personal cost – brought this darkly complex narrative into the light. Because she decided against massive odds to bring her personal experience into the public arena, we can see clearly the forces raged against a woman who pursues a rape complaint through the courts. We can see why so many women decide against taking this course, including other women who have endured sexual harassment and assault within Parliament House.

Ms Higgins has not only taken on the alleged perpetrator. She has also taken on government ministers, senior public servants, law enforcement agencies and a hostile media. She continues to endure abuse on social media. After a gruelling trial and an undecided jury, she was forced to deal with the shocking news that it had all been in vain because a juror had acted improperly and the trial had to be aborted.

What Ms Higgins’ decision to go public has also enabled us to witness is the fundamental weakness of several of our core institutions. We cannot trust these institutions to act on our behalf. They have become entirely self-serving. They exist only to ensure their ongoing existence. What we might have hoped for Ms Higgins and every other alleged victim is that those institutions involved would promote justice. Instead, the instinct is to protect the institutions and those responsible for their functioning, at all costs.

This institutional betrayal of Ms Higgins is an all-too-common story in which the victim is silenced and the perpetrator enabled. The toll this takes on the victim, on top of the initial, alleged abuse, is enormous.

The litany of “errors” emerging from the Lehrmann case is staggering and yet to be collated. These range from the morning-after steam cleaning of Ms Reynolds’ couch to the “accidental” forwarding by the A.C.T. Police of a brief of evidence containing sensitive material to Lehrmann’s then defence team, culminating in the “accidental” discovery of a juror’s forbidden excursion into external research. One wonders are these “mistakes” regular occurrences in rape trials or are they peculiar to this high-profile, cross-institutional event?

In the flurry of inquiries that will almost certainly follow this ghastly fiasco, the struggle of the young woman at its centre may be overlooked. The powerful will no doubt hasten to protect themselves and their institutions, with scant regard for the alleged victim. That anyone will eventually be held to any kind of account is doubtful.

We can only hope Ms Higgins can take some comfort from the contribution she has made to the exposure of the morally corrupt who manage to attain high office and the considerable dent she has made in the walls of secrecy that surround them and the institutions they control.

*This article is also available on audio here:

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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