Love match with an age gap stirs up a storm in court
A magistrate and a young court clerk have professed their love after a whirlwind workplace romance.
But the unconventional love match has stirred up a storm in Victoria's magistrates' courts, with an email being sent out on Monday warning staff over inappropriate relationships with judicial officers.
Magistrate Rodney Higgins, in his late 60s, and 23-year-old court clerk Ashleigh Petrie announced their engagement recently during a romantic Fijian getaway.
"What an amazing 10 days it has been here in Fiji! Firstly, I arrived as Rods (sic) girlfriend and I leave as rod (sic) fiancé (sic)! I cannot wait to become Mrs Higgins!" Ms Petrie posted on social media.
"It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger. The love of my life asked me to marry him and I said YESSSS," she added.
"We are actually the funniest couple in the world! We spend all day everyday laughing and being silly, having fun! I don't know how I got so lucky to find such a sweet and caring man with the same sense of humour, this amazing man is the love of my life!"
Other posts have shown the couple at the football, zip-lining in Fiji, bamboo rafting and singing karaoke.
"Dating a senior citizen … my community work is done," Ms Petrie even joked in a post of a picture of the magistrate holding up his senior citizen's card.
But some - including top officials - on the court circuits do not believe it is a laughing matter.
Mr Higgins is due to be relocated from the Sale and Bairnsdale court circuit to Bendigo in the new year amid complaints about Ms Petrie regularly entering his chambers and trying to use his reserved car space.
The state's chief magistrate, Peter Lauritsen, is said to have been alerted by registry staff to concerns about Ms Petrie regularly entering Mr Higgins' private chambers.
One court source said the chief magistrate twice had raised the issue with a co-ordinating magistrate, making it clear Ms Petrie was not to have access to Mr Higgins' chambers.
Ms Petrie is understood to have been spoken to by a senior court official about trying to use Mr Higgins' reserved car space.
Sources say the four-decade age gap between the pair has also raised eyebrows among colleagues, with concerns about a power imbalance between the pair.
And on Monday, a memo was sent to court staff warning them about inappropriate relationships with judicial officers.
Mr Lauritsen this week declined to answer questions about the issue.
"The Chief Magistrate has no comment on the personal lives of magistrates or staff," he said through a spokesperson.
Mr Higgins, who has three daughters and is a grandfather, was appointed to the bench in 2017.
He began his career as a clerk and waterside worker before going back to university in 1989, completing a double degree in arts and law.
He ran as a failed Labor candidate for Shepparton in the 2014 state election and for the seat of Murray in the 2013 federal election.
Concerns have also aired recently about another relationship between a magistrate and a clerk.