Tributes have poured in for a “beautiful” young court clerk whose engagement to a Victorian magistrate 45 years her senior sparked headlines and calls for an inquiry by the integrity watchdog.
Ashleigh Petrie, 23, was hit and killed by a car at 1am on Monday in Metung in the East Gippsland region of country Victoria.
Earlier this month Ms Petrie shared the happy news of her engagement to Rodney Higgins, 68, after he popped the question during a holiday to Fiji.
“A sad tragic end to a special love story,” one Facebook user wrote on Ms Petrie’s page. “Sympathies to Ashleigh’s family, Rod and friends. RIP beautiful girl.”
Another said, “Sad, so very sad. Young life cut short. You obviously had a lot of support out there in this trying time. Pity they didn’t express their support sooner. Feel for her partner. RIP.”
Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court, where the couple worked, cancelled all hearings yesterday as co-workers grappled with the shock news.
Victoria’s Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen and Magistrate’s Court of Victoria chief executive officer Andrew Tenni issued a joint statement expressing their sadness.
“It is with deep regret that we advise that … Ashleigh Petrie died as a result of an accident involving a motor vehicle early this morning,” it read.
“The details are still coming to hand.
“Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time. Judicial officers and staff are being supported, and appropriate counselling and support services are being provided.”
A spokesperson for Victoria Police confirmed a woman was struck by a vehicle, with the driver stopping to render assistance.
“The investigation remains ongoing … police will prepare a report for the coroner,” the spokesperson said.
The couple’s romance made headlines around the country, sparking a Victorian Liberal MP to call for an investigation by the Judicial Commission of Victoria.
In response, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said the relationship did not break any rules.
Her Opposition counterpart Edward O’Donohue had said the relationship warranted an investigation, even though Ms Petrie did not work directly with Mr Higgins.
In a letter to the Commission, Mr O’Donohue questioned the Magistrate’s “capacity to perform his judicial duties”.
“Recent media attention given to Magistrate Higgins’ relationship with a court clerk, now his fiancee, including alleged influence over his judicial decision-making, raises serious questions about his independence,” Mr O’Donohue wrote.
“Judicial officers hold a very high and important office within the Victorian community and the standards of conduct and integrity to which they are held, are so much higher.”
In a statement this afternoon, Mr O’Donohue said: “My thoughts are with Ashleigh’s family, friends and colleagues at what can only be described as a tragic and difficult time.”
Ms Petrie was publicly overjoyed about the engagement, sharing happy snaps from their recent holiday.
“It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger,” Ms Petrie 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’) fiancee! I cannot wait to become Mrs Higgins.”
The pair began dating earlier this year and were understood to be living together in Mirboo North.
On Sunday, Ms Petrie shared an Instagram picture from the deck of Metung Hotel, several hours before the tragic accident occurred nearby.
Despite the apparent raised eyebrows about the significant age gap, she had joked about it in social media posts.
“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!” Ms Petrie captioned a photo of the magistrate holding up his senior citizen’s card back on September 5.
“Dating a senior citizen … my community work is done,” she also wrote over the photo.
Mr Higgins is a father to three daughters and also a grandfather of eight. He was appointed to the bench in 2017.