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Written by Peter Carter

August 29, 2021

“It defies belief that a seemingly intelligent, mature, woman would risk her marriage and career to have a sexual relationship with a schoolboy,” wrote the judge in the case of a 13-yr-old who became infatuated with his boarding house tutor who was not long out of uni with her Master’s degree. The case before the court concerned Nicholas Brockhurst who in 1996 started his first year at Toowoomba Grammar School in grade 8 and quickly established a very close relationship with his English teacher.

He also saw Meredith Rawlings for evening pre-dinner tutoring sessions that often extended to 2 hours and they soon got into the habit of daily late-night phone chats. She frequently came to his rugby and cricket matches where they would sit together when he was not on the field. They set off after school finished on a Friday on a weekend bus trip together from Toowoomba to his family farm at Drillham just west of Miles.

Kissing became “more regular” from mid-1997 by which time the frequent intimacy between them had been noticed by others.

Although Rawlings was directed by the school in April 1997 not to be alone with the student “or any other schoolboy”, their closeness increased. They first had sex while he was staying – after seeking his parent’s consent – at her home over the long weekend of the annual Downlands–Grammar rugby carnival.

It was then that his parents raised their alarm with the school after having discovered notes and faxes from Rawlings to their son. He admitted the relationship in confrontation with the school’s counsellor at the start of term 3 and that led to the tutor’s departure from the school a month or so later.

Brockhurst was expelled not long after for rough and bullying behaviour towards a classmate, allegations that he denied.

He undertook year 10 at Miles State High still infatuated with his former teacher and angry at those who had bought their relationship to an end.

He returned to TGS for year 11 but fell in with “the wrong crowd who smoked weed behind the footy oval” and was expelled again. He finished years 11 and 12 at Nudgee College but his final results were “diabolical”.

The student filed a lawsuit against Rawlings more than 10 years later in 2018 claiming damages for “battery” for each instance of intimate or sexual contact on the basis that at age 13 and 14, he was incapable of giving consent.

He argued that after having sex for the first time, his academic performance “disintegrated” and went from being a “polite and nice boy to one who challenged authority and put no effort into his schoolwork”.

Although “he did not need much persuasion” and was “over the moon” at the time, the illicit relationship had been – he pleaded in the case – the cause of his poor academic outcome, checkered employment history, intimacy issues and failed relationships all the while being severely depressed and suffering insomnia.

His former tutor on the other hand contended the complainant’s version was “a fantasy he convinced himself was true”.

Her account was that the boy already had an oppositional defiant disorder before his interest in her began and it was only her influence that had moderated such behaviour. She had, she swore, only embarked on the Behaviour Recovery Program – which involved extending additional attention to him – because of his mother’s concerns that he might self-harm.

Unfortunately, her lawyers did not call any psychiatric expert evidence in that regard and those psychiatrists who gave evidence were cross-examined only sparsely on these issues.

In very much a “he said” “she said” case, who was the court to believe?

Counsel for the defendant made much of the inconsistencies between the plaintiff’s testimony and his prior statements that – he alleged – shed so much doubt on his credibility that his account should be rejected.

Not so ruled Justice Soraya Ryan who heard evidence and submissions over 12 days in March and April 2021.

In her view such inconsistencies were satisfactorily explained for one reason or another ie because they related to different periods of time; reflected misunderstanding or mistake by the medical practitioner reporting what he had said; related only to peripheral matters in respect of which he had an “unsurprisingly patchy memory”; related to the context in which they were made, or were trivial.

She also excused the student’s concealment of the relationship from psychiatrist Doug Scott whom he consulted at the behest of his parents in 1997.

“The plaintiff was a heart-broken 14-year-old boy, displaying difficult behaviours in the aftermath of the end of a relationship with a woman he adored: a relationship which he did not then understand as abusive,” she noted in exoneration.

While rejecting the plaintiff’s submission that Rawlings’ defence was entirely fabricated, Her Honour dismissed her “innocent spin” on the events and concluded the “grooming and seduction” had occurred exactly as described by the plaintiff in the witness box, namely in a “very believable progression of intimacy over time”.

Justice Ryan upheld Brockhurst’s “battery” claim and the losses he contended had flowed from the events, observing in her 90-page judgement that she had no “need to understand why [Rawlings] was sexually attracted to the plaintiff or why she took the risks she did in being intimate and sexual with him”.

She accepted Brockhurst’s claim for loss of earning capacity, concluding the psychological injury caused by the sexualised behaviour had impacted negatively on his ability to earn income.

General damages were assessed on a common law basis at just $65k and past income-related losses at $680k. A 30% loss of future income earning capacity was attributed to his injury, yielding a further $306k.

“Aggravated” damages – in recognition that the defendant acted with contumelious disregard for the plaintiff’s rights – of $35k, and “punitive” damages of $15k were also awarded.

The total award was $1.57 mil against which $100k – two-thirds of the settlement sum already paid to the plaintiff by TGS – was deducted as a set-off.

The events – bar the injury and lawsuit – bear some similarities to those of a student in France who in 1994 at age 14 fell in love with his drama teacher, 24 years his senior. The relationship was disapproved of by both their parents and scandalised the school and local community. Classmates though attested to the chemistry between him and the married teacher who frequently invited students to her home for cocktails and encouraged them to call her by her first name. Emmanuel Macron married his former teacher Brigette in 2007 and became President of France in 2017.

Brockhurst v Rawlings [2021] QSC 217 Ryan J 27 August 2021

Categories: sexual abuse

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