Fears love-struck magistrate took advice from fiancee
The judicial integrity of magistrate Rodney Higgins has been called into question amid damning allegations he took legal advice from his young fiancee.
Senior lawyers have told the Herald Sun they became increasingly concerned about appearing before Mr Higgins because of fears he was being unduly influenced by 23-year-old court clerk Ashleigh Petrie, now his fiancee, when they worked together in regional Victoria.
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One senior lawyer said Ms Petrie boasted about helping Mr Higgins decide on sentences generally, saying she described the magistrate as "too soft".
The lawyer said the clerk attended a legal conference in Bali with Mr Higgins and bragged she encouraged her partner to come down harder on people who appeared before him.
The incident, in June, allegedly sparked an angry response from a senior criminal barrister that led to a physical altercation between the pair that was seen by some of Melbourne's top legal figures.
The Bali Conference is an annual legal event that has attracted keynote speakers including former High Court justice Michael Kirby, Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry, and prominent barristers Julian Burnside, QC, and Robert Richter, QC.
Ms Petrie posted pictures of the trip with Mr Higgins on social media.
But she went to ground on Wednesday after the Herald Sun revealed concerns among Melbourne's legal fraternity about her recent engagement to Mr Higgins, who is more than 40 years her senior.
When asked about allegations she influenced Mr Higgins she refused to comment but did not deny them.
When told the Herald Sun would be printing the allegations, Ms Petrie replied only: "Okay".
Outgoing chief magistrate Peter Lauritsen also refused to be drawn on the serious allegations, issuing a no comment response to questions for the second day in a row.
He also refused to comment when asked about a complaint made by a senior magistrate about Ms Petrie's conduct.
Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said it was a matter for the magistrates' court.
"The advice I've been provided is there haven't been any rules broken," she said.
"I'm not in the habit of commenting on people's personal lives."
But Opposition spokesman Ed O'Donohue said the matter needed to be urgently addressed. "It's disappointing that it is diverting attention from the many challenges confronting Victoria's courts and justice system," he said.