District court judge loses battle with ex-wife over division of assets

Robert Ronayne is an Auckland District Court judge. Photo / File
Robert Ronayne is an Auckland District Court judge. Photo / File

An Auckland District Court judge has lost a legal battle with his ex-wife over the division of their assets - and failed in his bid to keep the fight secret.

Robert Graeme Ronayne and Cameron Anne Coombes were married for almost 25 years and had two children together in the early 1990s before separating in 2009.

Ronayne, who practised law in Rotorua and then rose to prominence as a Crown prosecutor in Tauranga, was appointed a District Court judge in 2013.

Ronayne has presided over several headline-making cases, including that of Blues player George Moala who was found guilty of assault, a principal and her husband who plead guilty to siphoning more than $30,000 from a South Auckland school, and an Auckland professional who exposed himself to a jogger.

When the couple's marriage ended, they agreed to share their property equally but argued over how this should be done.

Part of the argument at a June hearing centred around Coombes' decision to leave paid work and Ronayne's lawyer said she'd "chosen to live a life of leisure". But Coombes had earlier argued that although she wanted to pursue further qualifications, she "owed it" to her children to be available for them.

Robert Ronayne
Robert Ronayne

The legal battle

The pair fought in the High Court at Hamilton and Justice John Faire last year said Ronayne should pay Coombes $300,263. He also ordered Ronayne to pay $32,959 in costs and disbursements to Coombes.

Ronayne then went to the Court of Appeal, which considered four issues in June:

• Was Justice Faire wrong when deciding Ronayne was not entitled to "occupation rent" for the two and a half years for which Coombes lived in their family home after they separated?

• Was the High Court judge wrong to not give Ronayne an allowance for contributions he made to Coombes after they separated?

• Was Justice Faire right to award Coombes $65,000 because of the "economic disparity" between the former couple?

• Was there are error in the decision made on costs?

Justices Tony Randerson, John Wild and Forrest Miller yesterday rejected Ronayne's appeal.

They saw no error in Justice Faire dismissing Ronayne's claim for the occupation rent.

"Indeed, we are in no doubt the claim was untenable and was properly dismissed," they said.

On the question of contributions, it was agreed that Ronayne had paid $429,500 into the couple's joint account in the two years after they separated and withdrew $246,000 over this time.

Coombes, on the other hand, deposited $51,400 during the period and withdrew $83,300.

Ronayne sought an adjustment or allowance of about $100,000 because of this.

The High Court's Justice Faire declined, and the Court of Appeal yesterday said Ronayne had failed to convince them that this was wrong.

One point leading them to that conclusion was that Ronayne had an obligation to maintain his ex-wife and their two children for a reasonable period of time after they separated.

The three judges "were unable to hold" that Ronayne's contributions "did not roughly equate to a reasonable level of maintenance".

Looking after the children

A large chunk of the appellate judges' decision dealt with the question of the $65,000 economic disparity payment.

Ronayne's lawyer Murray McKechnie challenged the award on the basis that Coombes had not established the "divisions of functions within the marriage" had caused the disparity between likely income and living standards.

Coombes has a degree in business management and while she worked for a Rotorua accounting firm during the 1990s, she did not complete the exams that would let her become a chartered accountant.

When the couple moved to Tauranga in 1998 she could not find work with an accounting firm but instead got a job at an eye clinic.

"It offered the flexible work hours she needed with young children, but roughly the same level of remuneration," Coombes said in her evidence.

She resigned from the job in 2000.

In her evidence, Coombes said: "I decided that I would try and get back into an accounting firm and to pursue my professional qualifications. Despite looking I was not able to find any suitable position although I have to say that I was not fully committed to that course as I did not want to be working fulltime. I felt I owed it to the children to be available for them. Further, we were well off financially. [Ronayne's] income from the practice was such that further income from me, while a benefit was not a necessity. We already had a comfortable lifestyle.

"[Ronayne] did not force the issue about me returning to work. While we never actually sat down and discussed it in detail there was an implicit understanding that the decision was mine as to when I should return to the workforce but in the meantime it was important for the children for me to be around."

Their daughter was also diagnosed with a serious illness in 2007 at age 13 which "clearly, restricted the possibilities of advancing an accountancy career".

The couple's family trust also purchased another property, which required substantial renovation and Coombes had organised and overseen those renovations.

But Ronayne said the couple had had a nanny when the couple moved to Tauranga so Coombes "was free to move her career forward", but she had made it clear she was no longer interested in becoming a chartered accountant.

"I clearly remember having discussions with [Coombes] and feeling very disappointed and somewhat frustrated that what she was saying was that the career she had earlier identified as a goal and reason for taking four years out of the workforce to obtain a degree was no longer of interest to her.

"I dispute [Coombes'] allegations that she was too tired to study after the children were in bed. I further say [Coombes] was by nature a very energetic person. For most of our marriage she frequently stayed up late (sometimes until 2-3am) playing or working on a computer."

McKechnie argued that it was Coombes' own choice to resign from the clinic and not to complete the accounting exams over that time.

"Mr McKechnie put it quite bluntly by contending that the respondent [Coombes] had, following her resignation in 2000, chosen to live a life of leisure.

Coombes did not take up paid work until September 2009, six months after the couple separated.

The judgment also read: "In terms of [Coombes] developing her career options post-separation, one has to take into account her age. By the time of the separation she was approximately 49/50 years of age. She referred to an interview with a chartered accountancy firm where she said she had been told her age would tell against her advancement as a chartered accountant."

Consequently, it was the respondent's own choice not to pursue her career, rather than any agreed division of functions within the marriage, that was causative of the disparity in likely income and living standards on which the judge based his $65,000 award," the Court of Appeal said.

The appellate judges found that Justice Faire's factual findings were sound.

"All of this, in our view, supports [the High Court] finding that there was the required causal link between the division of functions in the parties' marriage and the significant disparity between their likely income and living standards following the end of their marriage," the Court of Appeal said.

Justices Randerson, Wild and Miller upheld the $65,000 award and also dismissed Ronayne's challenge on costs.

They rejected his request to anonymise their judgment and said Coombes "expressly" did not seek anonymity.

Coombes' lawyer said he had no comment when approached by the Herald.

Ronayne did not want to comment.

- NZ Herald

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