Saturday, 30 November 2013

Relocation Disputes: Approaches in England and New Zealand

It's just a couple of weeks now until the publication of Relocation Disputes: Law and Practice in England and New Zealand (Hart Publishing, pictured). "Finally", you say, "the ideal stocking-filler present that I've been waiting for!" I'm fully supportive of that idea, so for those who aren't tempted enough by the lovely Edward Hopper on the cover ("Route 6 Eastham", 1941), here's a little more about the book.

This book started life in 2007, when I began my doctorate at the University of Oxford. I was interested in looking at how the family justice system deals with cases involving children, and a colleague had suggested that relocation disputes might make an interesting case study. Relocation cases, which I've written about here a couple of times before - see here, here and here for the main posts - are disputes between separated parents where one of them (usually but not always the mother) seeks to take the child to live somewhere else, and the other parent objects to that proposal. The 'somewhere else' can be a relatively short distance away, such as the other side of a large city or another nearby town, but in terms of cases which reach the attention of the law they more commonly involve longer distances, and in particular they often involve proposed international moves.

Relocation cases are commonly thought by judges and lawyers to be amongst the most difficult cases that they deal with between parents. While there are exceptions, in general what you see in a relocation dispute is a conflict between two very good, very committed parents, both of whom have legitimate desires and plans regarding their children. The legal framework governing the resolution of these disputes is actually quite straightforward in most jurisdictions. In England and Wales, s 1 of the Children Act 1989 makes the child's welfare the court's paramount considerations, while in New Zealand s 4 of the Care of Children Act 2004 makes the child's welfare and best interests the paramount consideration. The difficulty and complexity stems from the fact that we have to work out what that actually means in the relocation context.

In order to do that, I started by going back through the reported cases. The first, a case called Hunt v Hunt, comes from 1884, but the modern principles began to be developed by the English Court of Appeal in 1970, in a case called Poel v Poel. This case guided the courts in both England and New Zealand for many years. It was abandoned by the New Zealand courts in 1995, with their Court of Appeal decision in Stadniczenko v Stadniczenko, and was superceded in England by the 2001 Court of Appeal decision of Payne v Payne. In Chapter 2 of the book, I look at these shifting patterns in the case law, and at how the legal principles evolved and were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years.

But cases in appeal courts and in the official law reports can only tell you so much. I wanted to know what was really happening on the ground, and how those professionals who have to use the law in their work saw it. So I set off and interviewed trial judges, barristers, solicitors and welfare advisers who were experienced in relocation cases in both England and New Zealand. The views and experiences of the 44 men and women who talked to me as part of that study form the core of this book.

Chapter 3 contains the real comparison between the two jurisdictions and their quite different ideas about what 'welfare' means in the relocation context. I gave all my participants three identical case studies about different types of relocation disputes and asked them to tell me what factors they thought would be important in coming to a decision, and what the likely outcome would be if the case went to court. The enormous variation in the approaches of participants in the two jurisdictions was amazing, and the 'classic relocation case', involving a hypothetical child called Tom whose mother wanted to move to America with her new American husband, was the one that showed up the differences in approach most starkly.

From there, I focus in on the two jurisdictions in turn, asking practitioners to talk about their general experiences of relocation law and to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of their system. These discussions reveal a wealth of information about the practical working of the law, and about lessons that can be learnt both in terms of working well within the existing law and in terms of possible law reform.

Reform of the law is indeed the focus of the final chapter of the book. Relocation is one of the most controversial areas of family law, and in many jurisdictions around the world there is discussion about whether they can be dealt with better. I review a number of possible suggestions that have been put forward, and end with a discussion of an idea of mine which comes out the study.

Obviously I can't tell you if it's any good, but Mr Justice Peter Jackson of the High Court in London says in a review for the cover that the book "holds up a mirror to what we do in relocation cases, and draws a map of where we might want to go. More than that, we see how lawyers and judges think about hard decisions, and how studies of this kind can help us think more clearly."

Relocation Disputes: Law and Practice 
in England and New Zealand is published 
by Hart Publishing on 17 December 2013.

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