The New Zealand High Court ruled that the country’s Property Relationships Act (PRA) could not be applied to people in a multi-partner relationship.
The judge in the case, Justice Anne Hinton, also said the New Zealand Family Court could not “stretch” the law to accommodate a three-way relationship, the New Zealand Herald reported.
The case relates to a couple, Lilach and Brett Paul, who married in 1993.
In 1999, Lilach met Fiona Mead and in 2002 the three of them formed a polyamorous relationship.
They moved into a four-hectare property in affluent Kumeu, northwest of Auckland, which had just been purchased in Ms Mead’s name for $NZ533,000 ($497,000). She paid the deposit of $NZ40,000 ($37,000).
They lived together at the property for 15 years, and mostly shared the same room and bed, the court ruling said.
Ms Mead worked as a vet, Brett set up a paintball business on the property, Lilach worked as an artist, and Lilach and Brett had a lawn-mowing business. They all contributed to the household, though they dispute how much each contributed.
In 2017, Lilach separated from Mead and Brett. Brett and Mead then broke up in early 2018. Mead kept living at the Kumeu property, which was now worth $NZ2.1 million ($1.96 million).
Lilach applied to the New Zealand Family Court last year to determine each parties’ shares in the property, and said she was seeking a third of the home. The New Zealand Family Court referred the case to the New Zealand High Court.
In a ruling published on Friday, the High Court said a polyamorous relationship could not be recognised under the law because all of the relationships covered by the PRA – marriage, civil union, de facto – were defined as being between two people.
The court also considered whether the relationship could be divided into three separate de facto relationships for the purposes of the law.
But because Ms Mead was a member of both relationships this would mean she was entitled to 50 per cent of the property while Lilach and Brett would get 25 per cent each. That was inconsistent with the law’s principles of equal sharing after a break-up, the court said.
“For all of the above reasons, not only does the Act on its face not apply to a polyamorous relationship such as the parties’, but it would be unworkable to stretch the legislation to ‘fit’ this case,” Justice Anne Hinton concluded.
She said reform of the kind required by the Paul-Mead case could only be done by parliament.
The court ruling noted that polyamorous couples had asked the Law Commission of New Zealand to recognise their relationships when it recently reviewed the law. Some submitters felt it could give them some legitimacy which they did not yet have in society.
The Law Commission said at the time that excluding multi-partner relationships – which were “functionally similar” to marriages, civil unions or de facto relationships – could be difficult to justify.
Polyamorous relationships could share many of the hallmarks of the more traditional couplings, including house-sharing, raising children together, financial dependence, and mutual commitment to a shared life, the commission said.
But it eventually recommended to Government that the PRA should continue to cover only intimate relationships between two people.
“Extending the regime to multi-partner relationships would be a fundamental shift in policy and should be considered within a broader context involving more extensive consultation about how family law should recognise and provide for adult relationships that do not fit the mould of an intimate relationship between two people.”
Property relationship lawyer Jeremy Sutton said the PRA had been updated in 2002 to include non-married couples, but had not yet adjusted to more modern relationships.
“A polyamorous relationship doesn’t fit within the definition of a marriage, civil union or de facto relationship,” he said.
“It’s a challenge in that respect because if more than two people could be in a de facto relationship it could be three or four or five.
“The law is trying to cater with two people who in a relationship – it just wasn’t a fit within the Act.”