Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

The rewards and challenges of practising law in the NT

Due to its transient population and cultural diversity, practising law in the Northern Territory presents unique vocational experiences and challenges, which this managing partner said are not encountered in any other Australian jurisdiction.

user iconGrace Robbie 04 April 2024 SME Law
expand image

Vanessa Farmer is the AFL Withnalls managing partner and head of family law in Darwin and an accredited family law specialist with over 25 years of experience in the field. Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, she highlighted how rewarding and challenging practising family law in the Northern Territory is compared to other Australian jurisdictions.

Farmer was born overseas in Port Moresby, New Guinea, but has called the Northern Territory home for 50 years. After living there for a substantial time, she said there are key distinct characteristics and unique features that she’s seen in the NT.

“The territory is quite a transient population, big military base, big public sector.”


“And we do struggle with a population generally coming and going in and around the country that give rise to us having fabulous opportunities with migrants, big vibrant Asian culture, obviously fabulous indigenous culture here,” she stated.

“But it also comes often with friendships leaving changing issues for children, and again, the military, so they come and go every couple of years or so, which creates a lot of movement in the territory by way of people.”

Farmer highlighted some of the key advantages for lawyers working in this jurisdiction; advantages which may not be available to lawyers elsewhere in Australia.

“We have [a genuine work-life] balance that is not like perhaps other areas. My aircon electronically turns off at 5:00 pm. That is the time where people should finish their professional responsibilities because otherwise it takes over and we exit and you can do your exercise, you can see family, you can do that which balances you because it is a stressful job,” she said.

“This is a really nice place to work where we help each other, we support each other. I’ve always said little lawyers become big lawyers and so you are [there] to help. There’s very much a support and the profession supports each other. The seniors support the juniors, whether they’re within and outside extended firms.”

Farmer emphasised how preeminent face-to-face interactions are when practising law in the Northern Territory too.

“We are still in that mindset that might be a little bit backwards where we see our clients, they come to us, they don’t want telephone appointments, we don’t do the team's meetings. We see each other, we engage with each other,” she added.

Despite the positive aspects that the state offers lawyers, Farmer pointed out that there are specific challenges that legal professionals must address, particularly related to the region’s small and youthful population.

“We have always had staffing issues, not just in the legal profession across the board, within the territory, by virtue perhaps of our remote weather,” Farmer said.

“We’re geographically quite small, the population is minimal, yet with a transient nature, it gives rise to some family law difficulties, relocations and alike. We’re also demographically a young population, so there’s a bit of movement in marriages, separations, de factors around that and young children.”

As a regional area with a smaller and younger population, Farmer also highlighted the unique challenges faced by legal practitioners in the Northern Territory, challenges rarely encountered by lawyers in larger jurisdictions.

“Our federal circuit court judge, as he then was retired in June, a single judge registry. He hasn’t at this time been replaced,” she added.

“So we have travelling judges from around the country at this point in time. That makes us a circuit court at the moment that has pretty significant limitations for people here on waiting lists, trial dates and difficulties.”

Moving through 2024, Farmer added that there are a number of other key challenges set to impact the courts and family lawyers.

“I know that the court is having its challenges. The length of time of a relationship in this country, the average length of relationships is reducing, which gives rise to a high demand for our services. So that's certainly impacting us regionally. I mean, I don't have a judicial officer resident in the Northern Territory of Australia,” she said.

“What happens with that space is not something we can control. That's a matter for the attorney general. The commonwealth, Australia and securing somebody who does that is willing to come to the territory with the challenges that we have and engage in a single judge registry. It's a big difficulty for us. We've been lucky in the past having a local member of the profession who took up the position. So watch this space.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Vanessa Farmer, click below: