The trial for the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins in Parliament House has been vacated less than a week before it was scheduled to start.
The trial of Bruce Lehrmann, accused of raping Ms Higgins in Parliament House, was scheduled to start next week, on 27 June.
But his barrister, Steven Whybrow, sought a temporary stay of the trial on Monday (20 June), saying it was “not possible” to have a fair trial at this stage.
“He wants to get it on, but he wants to have a fair trial,” he said of his client.
Mr Whybrow was concerned about potential prejudice to his client from pre-trial publicity. He raised a speech made “on national television” by Channel 10’s Lisa Wilkinson at the Logie Awards on Sunday night (19 June).
He said there were also assertions made by a radio show, reports in multiple news articles, and a “raging debate” on social media.
He formally sought for the trial to be vacated.
ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold SC said as “undesirable” as Ms Wilkinson’s speech was, it was a “regurgitation” of information, while Chief Justice Lucy McCallum also said it was a “rehearsing” of comments made previously.
However, she said, the “problem is the fallout” that came from what had been reported on it.
When the arguments continued on Tuesday (21 June), Chief Justice McCallum said what concerned her was that the distinction between allegation and finding of guilt had been “completely obliterated”, raising an example of an assertion made in one of the media reports.
She said she had been asked to make an order preventing the media from discussing matters in the case earlier in the proceedings but had refused as she believed the media would limit their reporting. However, she said, “that trust is misplaced”.
Mr Drumgold accepted there had been a significant change in the matter but said, as it stood, Mr Lehrmann’s application did not give rise to a temporary stay.
He said there would be questions about whether members of the trial’s jury pool had actually been exposed to some of the reported assertions and that what they had heard could be corrected by directions given to them.
He added that the factual reporting of the case was “almost, without exception, wrong”.
Mr Whybrow said the conversation had continued over social media on Tuesday and had not been helped by media reporting from Monday. He was seeking a temporary stay so the adverse publicity had time to dissipate.
“This speech did not need to be made,” he said.
Chief Justice McCallum ultimately agreed with Mr Whybrow and, “with gritted teeth”, said the trial date of 27 June should be vacated as the recent publicity of the case “does change the landscape”.
She said she thought she had made it “tolerably clear” that people should refrain from making public comments on the case and the law of contempt, which was supposed to protect the integrity of the court, had proved ineffective.
She said she was not in a position to say when the trial would now be held.
Last year, ACT Policing alleged that then-26-year-old Mr Lehrmann had sexual intercourse with Ms Higgins without her consent at Parliament House on 23 March 2019.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
The matter will return to court for a mention on Thursday (23 June).