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Family Law Confusion After Homemaker’s Court Win

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Family law experts have warned women’s groups against overplaying the significance of a NSW Supreme Court of Appeal decision on property disputes between de facto couples.

The decision, handed down on Tuesday, involved a couple who had been in and out of a relationship from 1965, but had lived together for only 11 of those years.

Three Court of Appeal judges overturned a decision which saw the woman, Ms Linda Jones, awarded $100,000 from the sale of the couple’s property, worth $610,000, and instead awarded her a half share.

Her former partner, Mr Paul Grech, had paid for the property in about 1985 and put it in both their names as joint tenants. Ms Jones, who made no direct contribution to buy or renovate the house, cared for their child and contributed to household expenses, while her partner worked.

The court decided Mr Grech’s financial contributions did not outweigh Ms Jones’s efforts as a homemaker and parent, entitling her to a half share in the house.

Women’s groups yesterday said the decision was a step forward for women. Ms Catherine Carney, principal solicitor of the Women’s Legal Resources Centre, said in previous decisions, the homemaker contributions of de facto partners who are covered under State law, unlike married couples covered under Federal law were given less weight than financial contributions.

“The Family Court, certainly under the Family Law Act, will give greater weight to those non-financial contributions, and the wife was more likely to be compensated in the Family Court in the past than she was [under] the State legislation.”

However, Mr Garry Watts, a lawyer from family law firm Watts McCray, cautioned people against interpreting it as a “significant change in the law”.

While the decision of the judges to award Ms Jones half the property value was unanimous, they were divided over whether the principles applying to marriage property disputes should apply to unmarried couples.

Mr Watts said only one judge Justice Davies relied on family law principles, while one of the other judges Justice Powell had “referred to previous cases which said caution should be exercised when applying family law authorities to de facto couples”.

The convenor of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Ms Sarah Maddison, said it was “good to see judicial decisions catching up with the way many people are choosing to live [their] lives, and recognising that the traditional heterosexual married nuclear family is not the only way that people organise their families or contribute to bringing up children”.

Cynthia Banham – 437 Words
12 July 2001
Sydney Morning Herald