A changing society complicates property disputes

Judge Maureen Southwick QC — Family Court Judge

In the five years I have spent as a Family Court judge in Manukau the complexity of issues coming before the court has noticeably increased.

Image of Judge Southwick QCThe Family Court’s involvement in child care issues, both private and state-initiated, tends to be the primary area that attracts public criticism.

This reflects a lack of understanding of the multi-layered problems the court now faces. Drugs, alcohol, violence, generational unemployment and lack of reliable family support are common ingredients in the web of facts presented to the court. These cases do not have simple solutions.

Relationship property disputes are the less news-headlined part of a Family Court judge’s diet. Nevertheless, this area too is marked by developments and interpretations which are the consequence of society’s changing habits and expectations. “Was this a de facto relationship?” is a question which can result in days of evidence. It is hardly surprising when both today’s young and old of different cultures have myriad domestic arrangements.

The statutory provisions relating to the effect of the economic disparity between partners of a failed relationship remain poorly understood by litigants and continue to attract experts providing lengthy evidence about a person’s economic worth and prospects. This was unlikely to have been the legislators’ intention.

Trusts remain a fraught topic, and parties still expect a judge to wave a magic wand and make the pesky obstacle disappear. Although there has been some clarification from the higher courts, serious uncertainties remain.

I have little doubt that the tasks set for Family Court judges are not going to get any easier.

"Trusts remain a fraught topic, with parties still expecting a judge to wave a magic wand and make the pesky obstacle disappear"