A magistrate who had a controversial relationship with a much-younger court clerk has reached a settlement over her superannuation and life insurance payouts.
The relationship between Victorian magistrate Rodney Higgins, 68, and 23-year-old clerk Ashleigh Petrie raised eyebrows when it became public in 2019 after the grandfather of eight proposed on a 10-day holiday to Fiji.
Just days after their relationship emerged, Ms Petrie, 23, died when she was hit by a car in Metung, in Victoria’s rural East Gippsland on October 28.
In June this year, The Age newspaper revealed that Mr Higgins – who has since retired as a magistrate – had pocketed $180,000 from Ms Petrie’s life insurance and her superannuation.
It came despite Ms Petrie’s mother being nominated as the beneficiary of both funds.
The mother challenged Rest Superannuation’s decision, and in an agreement made public late on Thursday, it was revealed the pair had finally settled. A Current Affair, which aired the story, reported that Ms Petrie’s mother will receive about half of the death benefits.
“Nothing will take away the pain and sorrow of losing Ashleigh. Ashleigh was a gorgeous daughter and sister to her brother, and she is missed every day,” she told ACA.
“The whole process with the superannuation death benefit has been incredibly upsetting, stressful and emotional. Thankfully it is now over.”
Her lawyer, Kimble Stynes, told the show Ms Petrie’s mother was shocked to learn that Rest intended to give the money to Mr Higgins.
“Very shocked,” he said.
“She understood she had been nominated and that’s correct, she had been nominated, in the death benefit under the superannuation and she was very shocked and very upset that Rest had indicated their intention to give that death benefit to a claimant.”
He said Ms Petrie’s mother was relieved the drawn-out negotiations were over, and she finally had some closure after her daughter’s death more than two years ago.
“Tina is a lady of modest means, hard-working. I know it’s a cliché but she is saltof the earth, hard-working lady, living a modest life and also dealing with the very tragic death of her daughter,” he told ACA.
Mr Higgins has not commented publicly on the reports. But earlier this year he said authorities believed he deserved the money.
“They think I deserve 100 per cent of it,” he said.
He told ACA that his work had told him to call Rest to tell the fund of Ms Petrie’s death.
“They said, ‘What’s your relationship to her?’ I said, ‘I’m her fiance, we live together.’ They said, ‘We will send you paperwork, fill it out and send it back.’ And that was it,” he said.
There had been scrutiny of the couple’s relationship, due to their 45-year age difference and the perceived power imbalance. Mr Higgins said he was heartbroken that people had been “hurt” but said there was no power imbalance.
“I just am sorry that a lot of people have been hurt out of this,” he said.
“The impression, if you like, was Ashleigh worked with me in court, and that I had some sort of hold on her.
“That’s completely untrue, we never, ever worked together.”
Ms Petrie’s death in 2019 came just five weeks after Mr Higgins popped the question.
“It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger,” she said on Instagram.
“The love of my life asked me to marry him and I said YESSSS. What an amazing 10 days it has been here in Fiji! I arrived as Rod’s girlfriend and I leave as [Mr Higgins’] fiancée!
“I cannot wait to become Mrs Higgins.”
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