Child relocation – looking after children’s best interests
Research Team: Associate Professor Nicola Taylor, Dr Megan Gollop & Professor Mark Henaghan, University of Otago
A major Otago University study provided valuable real-life experiences for local and international jurists trying to reach common ground on controversial issues around child relocation following parental separation.
Children often suffer in the parental tug-of-war that can result following separation. It’s a growing problem world-wide as international mobility increases, and is often made worse when one parent wants to move a long distance away with the children, disrupting their relationship with the non-resident parent.
The three-year Otago study, supported by the Law Foundation and completed in 2009, provides rare insights into the experiences of both parents and children in families involved in relocation disputes.
Associate Professor Nicola Taylor, who co-led the Otago research team, says the study’s stories have raised awareness of how the welfare and best interests of children should be protected. She says it has helped New Zealand judges and lawyers to better-understand the positions of all family members in relocation disputes.
“The law was already very flexible, being guided by the welfare of the child principle, so that didn’t need amending. But our research has influenced how the perspectives of the applicant parents (usually mothers), respondents (usually fathers) and their children are weighed and balanced,” she says.
While this local progress is encouraging, efforts to reach international consensus on principles for dealing with these cases have faced considerable challenges. The Otago study has contributed enormously to international developments in relocation, but despite strong interest in finding common principles, it is doubtful that consensus can ever be achieved.
“In most Western jurisdictions, the court’s main consideration is the best interests of the child. While some courts consider all relevant issues, others have a presumption either in favour of, or against, relocation,” Associate Professor Taylor says.
“In many cases the relocation decision is relatively clear, but it’s difficult in others, especially when both parents have been closely involved in a child’s life.
“The trends we identified in relocation court decisions, along with the empirical outcomes from our family data, have helped provide an informed basis for applying the ‘best interests of the child’ principle in relocation disputes,” she says.
Working from Otago’s Children’s Centre, Associate Professor Taylor and fellow team members Dr Megan Gollop and Professor Mark Henaghan studied 100 New Zealand families involved in relocation disputes.
The research contributed to work by Lord Justice Thorpe, now retired as Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales, to develop a common international approach to relocation.
The study findings have been presented at numerous local and international conferences and seminars. They have also been drawn on by families, judges, lawyers, psychologists, counsellors and officials in New Zealand and overseas.
The New Zealand Law Foundation provided a grant of $315,776 in 2006 to fund this project.