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Judge Stephen Scarlett, lover of the arts, vintage Porsches and courtesy in court, recently retired from the Federal Circuit Court after a 28-year judicial career. He was appointed to the Local Court in 1988. He became the Senior Children’s Magistrate in 1995. He was appointed to the new Federal Magistrates Court in 2000. His life in the law illustrates the remarkable diversity of professional opportunities a law degree can offer. It also raises questions about how each generation learns and transmits the traditions, technical skills and values of the profession. Is the current crop of young lawyers meeting the expectations of their seasoned colleagues? 

My first impression, when I meet Judge Scarlett in his chambers in the Family Court in Sydney, is how refreshing it is to meet a judge who speaks eagerly about his time as a country solicitor. He went to Parkes in central western NSW planning to stay for five years. He liked it so much he stayed for 15. Country experience, he says, offers three things a young lawyer really needs: diversity of practice, responsibility for cases, and a close relationship with a senior colleague.

As Judge Scarlett pulls up a chair beside me in front of his desk, he smiles with pleasure at the memory of his first day as a solicitor in a country town.

“I went to work for a chap called Tony Matthews, a wonderful man,” he recalls. “He was a lot older than me. He’d been a Spitfire pilot in World War II. On the very first day he said, ‘Come across the road. The District Court is sitting here on circuit for a week, so come on over’.

“We walked diagonally across the road to the courthouse. On the way over he said, ‘You better get used to this walk, because I’m not doing it any more. You are’. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m doing litigation from now on’. And so it was.”

Despite this sudden acquisition of responsibility, or possibly because of it, Judge Scarlett extended his time in Parkes far longer than anticipated.

“It was most rewarding,” he explains. “I still have a great regard for country solicitors. Country solicitors can play an important part in the whole fabric of the community, like doctors do.

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