AG Christian Porter appoints junior barrister he knew at uni as judge

Mr Porter said the pair had had “no particular relationship” at university and had spoken at most two to three times in the past 20 years.

“Mr Snaden was at UWA at around the same time as me, but I don’t recall him being in the same year at law school,” he said.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said he had had “no particular relationship” with his Federal Court pick when they attended university together. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

“Since university, I may have spoken to Mr Snaden two or three times in 20 years, most recently after he was recommended for judicial appointment from senior members of the Victorian bar, with whom I consulted. Mr Snaden’s recommendation came because of his industrial relations expertise.”

But Mr Porter is under pressure over judicial appointments after being accused of stacking the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with Liberal figures. Labor this week called for an investigation by the Australian Federal Police, alleging one of the appointments may amount to a bribe.

And while the Attorney-General has claimed to consult “relevant stakeholders”, the Herald understands the Law Council of Australia was not consulted recently, before receiving an undertaking it would be in future.

“There is a concerning lack of transparency around the current appointment process to the federal courts,” UNSW law professor Gabrielle Appleby said.

“Australia is increasingly finding itself isolated in its executive-only process.”

The Coalition scrapped changes made by the previous Labor government, which included an independent panel to suggest candidates, advertised vacancies and public selection criteria.

The Attorney-General makes informal inquiries before recommending choices to Cabinet.

ANU emerita law professor Margaret Thornton, a critic of Australia’s “19th century” process, said she could not comment on Mr Snaden’s credentials.

But his relative inexperience, his having known the Attorney-General and his student links to the ruling party “raise genuine questions in the minds of the electorate about the efficiency and effectiveness of the appointment process,” Professor Thornton said.

Former High Court chief justice Gerard Brennan wrote in 2008 that a system of informal consultation by the attorney-general risked including advice from “secret sources”.

Figures compiled in January showed the Coalition since winning office appointed 38 men to higher federal courts and 16 women.

Mr Snaden, who was among four men appointed to the Federal Court last month, was set to focus on industrial matters and will join a handful of junior barristers to have ascended directly to the court in its 43-year history.

One legal source said appointing a junior, as opposed to a senior barrister, academic or prominent solicitor, was “highly unusual.”

Senior counsel are given the title in recognition of experience and skill, while juniors, who often work alone, assist them in more complex cases.

Legal guide Doyle’s listed Mr Snaden as a “pre-eminent” junior in Victorian industrial law in 2017, the division’s highest category. He was one rung lower the next year before returning to pre-eminent status this year.

Mr Snaden declined to comment except to say he was “deeply honoured” by the court appointment.

He has appeared for a number of large employers against unions, having started as a solicitor at the industrial firm Tanya Cirkovic & Associates.

At university, he was the 1999 Australian Liberal Students’ Federation vice-president and appeared at a Senate inquiry arguing against compulsory student unionism.

Victorian state Liberal MP Bridget Vallence thanked Mr Snaden as a close friend in her maiden speech, as did federal Liberal senator Scott Ryan.

In both thanks Mr Snaden was listed among other friends including Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer.

Patrick Begley is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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