In his reasons, Barr J held the prohibition was not a reflection of the professional integrity of the individuals concerned but rather the perception of bias that an objective lay person would have, should the acting magistrate continue to hear matters where her husband was even indirectly responsible for the representation of the defendant.
Alice Springs has a population of 28 000; therefore it is highly likely that couples, extended family members, and social contacts will regularly face one another in a professional capacity. The decision represents a huge blow to regional legal service providers, who struggle to attract and retain professional staff. One mechanism to encourage longer term retention of employees in regional Australia is to offer employment, employment opportunities, or relocation benefits to family units.
The Attorney-General has announced an appeal against Barr J’s decision. The purpose has been stated as to clarify the situation surrounding potential conflicts of interest into the future, particularly as the Northern Territory legal profession is quite small, and a number of practitioners are in domestic relationships.
RUTH BREBNER is a Darwin-based lawyer.