Recently, the New Zealand Supreme Court decided Mead v Paul. This case asked if the Family Court had jurisdiction to decide the division of relationship property between a ‘throuple’.
The Property (Relationships) Act 1976 (the Act) governs the division of relationship property when a relationship ends.
The crux of the issue was that, on the face of it, the Act referred to married couples, civil union couples, and de facto couples. The Act, therefore, on the face of it, did not contemplate the possibility of a long-term relationship between more than two people. This is not reflective of real life and the modern society we live in today.
Although polyamory is not a new concept, Mead v Paul is the first case in New Zealand to cover this topic.
This particular relationship began over 20 years ago and lasted around 15 years. It was not a social experiment or a passing fling.
The Family Court referred the case to the High Court to determine whether the division of relationship property could be decided by the Family Court. After the High Court ruled that the Family Court did not have jurisdiction, the case was appealed to the Court of Appeal and finally to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, with very little previous case law to guide them, looked at approaches of Courts in other jurisdictions that dealt with similar scenarios. Ultimately, the decision of the Supreme Court was divided – two ruled against and three ruled in favour of the Family Court having jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court decision essentially said that the relationship of Fiona, Lilach, and Paul can be broken down into three individual relationships of two people – i.e. Fiona and Lilach, Fiona and Paul, and Lilach and Paul – all occurring simultaneously. One of Fiona’s arguments was that breaking the relationship down in this way undermined the true nature of their relationship, in that, it was a threesome, not three separate relationships.
Given the outcome, it seems safe to say that a change is needed within legislation to update its scope.
A fundamental principle of the Act is that relationship property disputes under the Act should be resolved inexpensively, simply, and speedily as is consistent with justice.
Is it right that Fiona, Lilach, and Paul should have to front the cost of reaching an outcome simply because the law does not account for a way of life that is becoming increasingly prevalent?
I agree that the Act should be able to deal with polyamorous relationships. However, I do not agree that relationships should be broken down into “couple” relationships to achieve this effect. Why should the nature of their relationship need to be broken down and made to fit an historical societal mould in order to have their rights fairly determined?
New Zealand is a progressive country – why has this area of law been left behind?