Case: High Court declines to send back child to NZ

Case: High Court declines to send back child to NZ

The High Court has held (3:2)that a boy taken by his mother from NZ to Australia does not have to be returned, because the parties were not living in a de facto relationship, and therefore the father could not take advantage of the hague Convention and force the child to be returned to NZ.

Although he was in the minority, Chief Justice Gleeson made some interesting points about de facto relationships:

The relationship between two people who live together, even though it is a sexual relationship, may, or may not, be a relationship in the nature of marriage or civil union. One consequence of relationships of the former kind becoming commonplace is that it may now be more difficult, rather than easier, to infer that they have the nature of marriage or civil union, at least where the care and upbringing of children are not involved….

When divorce, for various reasons, was more difficult, in former times, de facto relationships often existed because there was an impediment to legal marriage. A common impediment was a subsisting marriage of one of the parties. Marriage, in Australia and New Zealand, involves legal requirements of formality, publicity and exclusivity. A person may be a party to only one marriage at a time. De facto relationships, on the other hand, do not involve these elements. They are entered into, and may be dissolved, informally. In Australia, marriages are required to be entered on a public register. In New Zealand, marriages and civil unions must be registered. Parties to marriages and civil unions do not have a choice as to whether, when, and by what means they will disclose their status to the public. It goes without saying that there is no mandatory public registration of sexual relationships, even if they involve cohabitation. De facto relationships may co-exist with the marriage of one or both parties and, at least in some circumstances, people may be parties to multiple de facto relationships. Yet the law to be applied in this case acknowledges that some are, and some are not, in the nature of marriage. How is the difference to be determined? No single and comprehensive answer to that question can be given, but there is one test that is applicable to the present case.

In Stack v Dowden, Baroness Hale of Richmond said:

“Cohabitation comes in many different shapes and sizes. People embarking on their first serious relationship more commonly cohabit than marry. Many of these relationships may be quite short-lived and childless. But most people these days cohabit before marriage … So many couples are cohabiting with a view to marriage at some later date – as long ago as 1998 the British Household Panel Survey found that 75% of current cohabitants expected to marry, although only a third had firm plans: John Ermisch, Personal Relationships and Marriage Expectations (2000) Working Papers of the Institute of Social and Economic Research: Paper 2000-27. Cohabitation is much more likely to end in separation than is marriage, and cohabitations which end in separation tend to last for a shorter time than marriages which end in divorce. But increasing numbers of couples cohabit for long periods without marrying and their reasons for doing so vary from conscious rejection of marriage as a legal institution to regarding themselves ‘as good as married’ anyway…

There is no reason to doubt that the same is generally true of Australia and New Zealand. It may be added that, in Australia, what often prompts cohabiting couples to marry is a decision to have a child, and to do so within the context of a marriage. People often refer to this as “starting a family”. The cohabiting parties to many relationships, especially first relationships of the “short-lived and childless” kind, may be surprised to be told that they are involved in a relationship in the nature of marriage or civil union. They may intend no such thing. The same may apply to some people in longer-term cohabitation who have chosen not to marry. It is the common intention of the parties as to what their relationship is to be, and to involve, and as to their respective roles and responsibilities, that primarily determines the nature of that relationship. The intention need not be formed in terms of legal status: to some people that is important; to others it is a matter of indifference. (By hypothesis, the parties to a relationship that satisfies the statutory description are not married, or in a civil union.) The intention may be expressed, or it may be implied. What is relevant is their intention as to matters that are characteristic of a marriage or a civil union, but that do not depend upon the formal legal status thus acquired. To describe a relationship as being in the nature of marriage implies a view about the nature of marriage. The same applies to a civil union. It is unnecessary, for present purposes, to attempt a comprehensive account of the features of a relationship that might justify such a description. Plainly, “living together” is not enough. For present purposes it is sufficient to focus upon that aspect of the relationship between the appellant and the father that gives rise to this dispute, that is to say, shared parenthood, and upon the inferences as to intention that may be drawn from that.

Case: MW v DOCS

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