True North: alumnus reflects on Territory career

A love of life in the Northern Territory has inspired the Hon Austin Asche AC QC in his many contributions to the law and the community.

The Hon Austin and Dr Valerie Asche.
The Hon Austin and Dr Valerie Asche. Image supplied.

By Sarah Crothers

The Honourable Austin Asche AC QC (LLB 1949, BA 1951, LLM 1950) has never let an opportunity pass him by. He has held several prominent legal roles, including serving as the first Victorian judge of the Family Court of Australia, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and as Administrator of the Northern Territory.

Asche spent his childhood in Darwin, a place he holds in the highest regard. He travelled from Darwin for a fortnight by ship to commence his secondary education in Melbourne.

He joined the Royal Air Force in 1944 and served for two years as a radar operator based in the Northern Territory and north-west Australia. After the war, Asche returned to Melbourne and studied law and arts at the University of Melbourne. It was within the walls of Trinity College as a tutor where Asche would later meet the love of his life, his future wife Dr Valerie Asche AM (née James) (BSc 1952, MSc 1955, PhD 1975).

“The warden of Trinity used to have a cocktail party for the tutors before Christmas,” he says.

I came along and saw the most magnificent girl, met her and took her out the next day, proposed the day after and she finally accepted on the third day.

Asche was admitted to the Bar in 1950 and practised in Queensland and Melbourne where he took on criminal law and divorce cases.

“Divorce was a very different thing back in those days,” he says.

“I think some young barristers wouldn’t believe me when I tell them you had to prove matrimonial offence to get a divorce.”

In 1976 Asche was appointed as the first Victorian judge of the Family Court of Australia. He also served as Acting Chief Judge from 1985 to 1986.

“There were a lot of people who opposed the reform and there was a lot of doubt about where we fitted in,” Asche says, reflecting on the implementation of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) and the newlyformed Court.

“It takes a few years for a new court to find its place in the hierarchy.”

After 10 years in the Family Court, Asche returned to his beloved Darwin to serve as Justice of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, and in 1987 was appointed Chief Justice.

“I got a ring from Marshall Perron, the then Attorney-General of the Northern Territory, asking if I would come to Darwin and serve as a judge there,” Asche says.

“I replied, ‘Give me two nanoseconds and I will be with you’.”

As Chief Justice of the Territory, in 1988 Asche and Justices Nader and Kearney were responsible for the quashing of all convictions against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain in relation to the death of their daughter Azaria.

In 1993, Asche resigned as Chief Justice to become the fifteenth Administrator of the Northern Territory, a role he enjoyed given his deep love for the region.

It was a wonderful time because I travelled to Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine and all those other places that constitute the magnificent group of people known as Territorians.

After retiring in 1997, Asche continued to make significant contributions to the law, serving as Chair of the Northern Territory Law Reform Committee until late 2018.

Asche says he’s been fortunate to have had so many interesting career opportunities come his way and he offers some simple advice to future generations. “Take anything that comes; you’ll always be learning that way.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 21, June 2019