Lorreck & Watts –  FMCAfam 977
This appeal was brought before the Family Court in Canberra and raised the question of which parent has to pay for the travel costs for children’s visits to the other parent.
Ms. Lorreck, the mother, and Mr. Watts, the father, had two children. In June 2012, the court gave orders allowing the mother and the two children to relocate to Cairns from Canberra. The father remained in Canberra. The order also included seven trips from Cairns to Canberra in a two year period. The decision regarding the costs of travel to and from Canberra was remitted to the Federal Magistrates court.
Both the mother and the father submitted their travel expense requests to the Federal Magistrate. The mother asked that she be required to pay for only one trip per year for the children to visit their father until she could earn $1,300 per week, at which time she would pay for every second trip. The father asked that the mother pay for every two out of three trips.
The Federal Magistrate ruled that the parents should share the burden of travel expenses equally. He noted both the mother’s proposal to pay for every second set of airfares and also noted that she had earlier offered to pay half of all of the flights. The Federal Magistrate recognised that the mother would need time to readjust to her new circumstances before imposing a financial burden on her, but concluded that this did not give her permission to forego her responsibility for the children.
The mother appealed the decision arguing that the Federal Magistrate did not provide adequate reasons for his decision, did not rely on the financial evidence she submitted to the court and disregarded the best interests of the children. The mother’s income was based solely on child support and social security and after deducting her expenses she was left with $26 per week of disposable income, or $1,352 per year. The Family Court agreed that the Federal Magistrate did not explain why he rejected the mother’s proposal. While the Family Court assumed that the Federal Magistrate did this on the basis of the mother’s original offer to pay for half of the travel costs, the Federal Magistrate did not explain his reasons for giving the order on travel expenses. Therefore, the Family Court found that the appeal should be allowed “on the basis of the challenge to the adequacy of his reasons.”
The Family Court, however, rejected the mother’s claim that the Federal Magistrate’s decision did not take the children’s best interests into consideration. The mother referred to section 60CC of the Family Law Act, 1975, a list of factors a court uses to determine what the best interests of the children are when granting parenting orders. While the mother specifically referred to section 60CC(3)(e) of the Act, which allows the court to consider the practical difficulty and expense of a child spending time with the other parent, she did not raise this issue in the context of her financial burden. The Family Court did not view it as a valid claim on appeal.
Mother to Pay Three of the Seven Trips
The Family Court ruled that the mother must pay for three out of seven trips over a two year period. This was the mother’s alternative suggestion if the court chose not to accept her proposal that she begin paying only once she started to earn $1,300 a week.
The Family Court gave several reasons for this decision. The judge held that the question of best interests as laid out in section 60CC of the Act does not apply to issues of travel costs. Instead, the court found that it was the mother’s decision to move the children in the first place and therefore “must bear a significant responsibility or obligation to ensure that they are able to spend time with their father”. In addition, while the father’s income was higher, he was not in a position to pay most of the travel expenses, particularly since he was already paying child support. The court also found that just as the financial burden on the mother could impact negatively on the children, the mother’s failure to contribute to the travel costs might increase the father’s anger and bitterness and therefore impact negatively on the children as well. Finally, the court argued that waiting until the mother reached a certain income level was unrealistic because she might never reach that level and because “income levels can be contrived”. Instead, the court made the mother responsible for three out of seven trips, beginning from a specific date, January 1, 2014.