Tug-of-love-money-go-round

By Rachel Grunwell

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Some Kiwis are forking out close to $200,000 on ugly custody and separation battles through the courts.

Otago University law professor Mark Henaghan hopes revelations over the costs of New Zealand Family Court battles will shock warring couples into spending cash on their kids, instead of lawyers.

The average relocation custody scrap costs about $30,000 for each parent and with most of the combatants earning $60,000 or less, court action is a massive drain.

Henaghan said most people knew about the emotional cost of fighting over their kids and the new data would make eyes water over the financial cost.

Henaghan led a three-year study with Dr Nicola Taylor and researcher Megan Gallop and backed by the NZ Law Foundation. They investigated the experiences of 114 Kiwi families who fought through the courts over the relocation of their kids, domestically and internationally.

It was this country's biggest look into the issue and how the kids involved coped with different decisions.

The Herald on Sunday asked the researchers to crunch the numbers on how much those in the research spent on legal costs. The results "amazed" even the professor, who remarked: "It's a lot of money: ludicrous."

The researchers sourced dollar figures from 44 of the parents, which revealed legal fees ranged from $2000 to $180,000. The latter fee was spent in two cases and involved both separation and kids' relocation disputes.

The average amount spent was just under $30,000 for a single parent. Put into context, more than 65 per cent of those in the study earned under $60,000 a year.

Henaghan said one couple even went to court a staggering 11 times - only for the mother to "voluntarily" end up back in the same city as her ex-partner.

He said his figures would show the public "how the money can mount up" in such disputes.

But ultimately the public should be warned Kiwi judges favoured both parties being involved in their child's life - unless there was violence involved.

Henaghan said that with an increasingly mobile society, expensive cases were rising.

But he believed money spent battling through the courts would be better going on travel for the kids, allowing them to spend time with the parent who was not the prime caregiver, and investing in a good computer for contact through skyping and other technologies.

Findings from the research included that 55 per cent of applications to relocate overseas were successful, whereas 40 per cent of applications for relocations within New Zealand were successful. It was mostly the mothers who wished to move (84 per cent) and within this country involved distances from 55km to 1450km. Over a third (38 per cent) of the families fought over international relocation, including 25 from NZ to another country and 13 to this country from abroad.

Countries included Australia, Europe, Canada, Netherlands, the US, South Africa, even Oman and Dubai.

Henaghan said a positive research finding was that no matter what the outcome the children generally adjusted.

The professor said parents needed to think about what was best for the kids, including the best support and schooling.

"If what they're fighting about is not well thought out and well planned, and good for the kids, then they're wasting their time through the court."

But Kiwis did not rack up bills like those in similar Australian research, which found one couple spent half a million dollars in a relocation case.

Auckland family lawyer Deborah Hollings, QC, was surprised by the cost findings. Her biggest relocation case had probably involved about $60,000 in fees.

She believed the majority of Kiwis tended to sort issues out of court, but some sunk into serious litigation. These parties tended to believe it was "a total win or lose situation".

She found relocation cases more difficult than murder trials. She said it was basically "gender warfare"; it's usually the mums applying to leave the dads and take the kids.

A South Island family court lawyer, Alice Leonard, said the big Christchurch earthquake had spurred several mums, separated from their partners, to relocate elsewhere with their kids. But they had since been advised the earthquake and safety fears were not strong enough grounds alone for such a shift away from the other parent.

- Herald on Sunday

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