Brittany Higgins says she left the dress she wore on the night of her alleged rape untouched and unwashed under her bed as she attempted to work out whether making a complaint would cause her to lose her job, a court has heard.
Higgins continued her evidence in the ACT supreme court on Thursday, also telling the jury she had felt “pressured from my workplace” to not pursue a complaint against fellow political staffer Bruce Lehrmann.
She alleges she was raped by Lehrmann on a couch opposite the desk of the then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds on 23 March 2019.
Higgins gave a damning account of a meeting she had with Reynolds and Fiona Brown, the minister’s chief of staff, in early April, which took place in the same room where Higgins alleges she was raped.
Higgins told the court that during the meeting it was made clear to her that there would be “problems” for her if she went to police.
“My interpretation of that was that if I raised it with police there were going to be problems and they wanted to be involved or informed. But just by having the meeting in the room, it all seemed really off,” she said.
“My interpretation of that was a bit of a scare tactic or an intimidation tactic, whether it was intentional or not.”
Higgins spoke to police after the alleged sexual assault, but on 13 April told them she didn’t want to proceed with a complaint.
Asked why, Higgins told the court:
“I felt pressured from my workplace not to pursue it any further at that time. I tried to sort of make other arrangements, to see if they’d be accomodating and they weren’t. It became really apparent that it was my job on the line so I toed the party line and I decided not to proceed at that time.”
The court was shown photos of the white dress Higgins was wearing during a night of heavy drinking and an early morning visit to Parliament House with Lehrmann, who the court has heard said he had needed to pick up documents.
Higgins was asked what she had done with the dress after the alleged rape. She told the court she had kept it in a plastic bag, unwashed and untouched, for six months.
“I wasn’t sure because of all the party political stuff how I could proceed or whether I could proceed without losing my job,” she said. “So I kept it there. It was like this weird anchor for me.”
She has since washed it in what she described as a symbolic act, and wore it only once more and never again, the court heard.
But, under cross-examination, Higgins was forced to concede she was mistaken in her evidence about the length of time the dress sat under her bed.
Steven Whybrow, counsel for Lehrmann, showed the court a photo of Higgins wearing the dress the month following the alleged rape, at a pre-birthday event for Reynolds in Perth.
“It stayed under my bed for a period of time, I was wrong in saying it was six months,” Higgins said.
Whybrow asked Higgins why she had taken the dress to Perth.
“Honestly, I think I was reclaiming my agency,” she said. “It may sound ridiculous to you, but it was kind of an empowerment thing. The worst thing in the world happened to me in this dress.”
The dress was given to the police prior to Higgins going public with the allegations, the court heard.
Earlier, the court was shown a photo of Higgins’s leg, taken five days after the alleged assault. It showed bruising on her right thigh.
Higgins told the court she took the photo the day before the federal budget in 2019.
“I took a photo because it was still there,” she said.
Lehrmann has denied the allegation that he raped Higgins, who was then his colleague, in the early hours of 23 March 2019, pleading not guilty to one charge of sexual assault without consent.
The court has previously heard Higgins and Lehrmann were drinking before they went to Parliament House after 1am.
Higgins breaks down in tears as CCTV footage played
Footage was played to the court from parliament’s CCTV system, in which Lerhmann told security he was there to pick up documents.
Higgins, who broke down in tears at times as the footage was played, said she had no memory of the conversation.
“I was quite out of it so I didn’t just have all my faculties about me to say ‘that’s kind of weird, why do you need to do that at 2 o’clock in the morning?’,” she told the court.
The CCTV footage shows Lehrmann and Higgins going through security.
Prosecutor Shane Drumgold SC asked Higgins what her level of intoxication was at that point. She replied:
“I don’t remember any of this so it was very high.”
Higgins was later asked about her text message interactions with an ex-partner, who had also worked in parliament. She told the court she wanted to slowly start disclosing what had happened to her.
“I needed to start ventilating it to someone, and he knew the Liberal party, he knew the system, so I wanted to start the conversation,” she told the court.
Higgins said she wanted to avoid the incident turning into a “media frenzy”.
“I wanted to find a way to somehow go to police. I didn’t want it to turn into this,” she said.
The court has heard that the police investigation began, then was put on hold, and was then re-enlivened.
Higgins said at one point, during the 2019 election campaign, she received a “pulse check” phone call from the Australian federal police, asking her if she was being pressured not to come forward.
“At the time, I denied it,” she said.
The trial continues before chief justice Lucy McCallum.