Reynolds fights to add WhatsApp ‘collaboration’ to Higgins defamation row

Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds will attempt to add a fresh claim to her high-stakes defamation row with Brittany Higgins, after WhatsApp messages tendered as evidence allegedly showed the former staffer colluded with fiancee David Sharaz on a now-deleted tweet.

During a hearing in the WA Supreme Court on Friday, Reynolds’ lawyer Martin Bennett said the exchange, which surfaced in a court-ordered document swap and was tendered as evidence, showed Higgins collaborated on the January 27, 2023 post.

reynolds fights to add whatsapp ‘collaboration’ to higgins defamation row

David Sharaz, Brittany Higgins (centre) and Linda Reynolds engaged in mediation talks on Tuesday.

That included an exchange in which Higgins and Sharaz allegedly debated who should publish the post based on the size of their respective online followings.

Bennett said his client would seek the court’s permission to extend the limitation period or amend her claim to add the post to the case on the basis Higgins was also a publisher in the eyes of the law.

He also raised concerns about the “incomplete” and “curated” evidence Higgins had supplied, telling the court some messages were only half downloaded and 15 had been deleted, while others were missing time stamps.

Images were not imbedded either, the court was told.

Bennet flagged an intention to apply to have paragraphs he deemed a significant shift in Higgins’ defence struck out, including those he said appeared to be justified as contextual truth about her alleged rape and Reynolds’ mishandling of the allegation.

But Higgins’ lawyer Teresa Ward insisted her client had no issue with addressing questions over the documents supplied and was taking steps to do so.

Ward strenuously rejected the fresh allegation and pushed for the addition of the January 27 tweet to be dealt with at trial.

Meanwhile, Sharaz made good on his vow to bow out of the action, consenting to judgment, deleting the tweets at the centre of his year-long defamation row and agreeing not to republish similar material.

Sharaz’s lawyer Jason MacLaurin said the nature of the damages he should have to pay as a result of that admission remained to be seen, with the matter expected to be assessed after Higgins’ defamation trial.

But MacLaurin insisted the acceptance of judgment did not mean an acceptance of a right to aggravated damages.

Friday’s appearance marked the last for Sharaz’s lawyers, with Justice Paul Tottle ordering that the court correspond with him via email from now onwards.

It’s been more than a year since Reynolds launched legal action against Sharaz for damages, and aggravated damages over several social media posts she claimed were defamatory of her.

Several months later, she launched an almost identical action against Higgins, which also claimed the posts constituted a breach of a deed of settlement and release the pair signed in March 2021.

Both had been defending the defamation case until earlier this month, when Sharaz took to social media saying he could no longer afford to fight the action and insisted it was time to let Higgins heal.

Ward pushed to have the six-week trial set for July 24 pushed back to August 5, arguing Sharaz’s absence meant the matter should now only take three weeks.

The hearing comes after a second attempt at peace talks in the defamation case between the former defence minister, Higgins and Sharaz failed to yield a resolution.

Reynolds has opened up a new battlefront in her pursuit of damages in the defamation action, lodging an application to find out who controls a trust she claims was established to safeguard her $2.4 million federal government pay-out for lost earnings and hurt, distress and humiliation.

The WA Senator wants to have the trust set aside amid fears it may prevent her from getting damages if she wins the defamation case, which she has mortgaged her own home to pursue.

But the exchange of documents and hearing of the matter was officially postponed on Thursday amid revelations Higgins and Sharaz would be tying the knot in a matter of weeks.

In a separate defamation action over a Network Ten expose, Federal Court justice Michael Lee found, to the civil standard, that – on the balance of probabilities – Higgins’ then-colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, raped her in Reynolds’ parliamentary office when Reynolds was a cabinet minister in 2019.

Lehrmann has long maintained his innocence.

As the pair’s former boss, Reynolds has found herself in the firing line over the then-government’s handling of Higgins’ rape allegation.

But Lee’s judgment dispelled claims of a political cover-up, a finding Reynolds said vindicated her and should prompt an admission from “all parties” that they “got it wrong”.

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