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Jacky Campbell, May 2017

Wrangling over Rover—who gets the dog after a relationship breakdown?

Dogs, cats and other pets are often treated as members of the family, more so than in the past. This trend is particularly obvious with dogs. The cost of, and demand for, designer dog breeds like cavoodles and labradoodles is high. They are given human names like Lucy or Charlie – not Rover or Fido – and are more likely to live inside than outdoors as they did in the past.

But who should keep the pet when a relationship breaks down? In parenting disputes, arguments about where the pet lives may reflect the parents’ fears and desires about where the children live. Sometimes, disputes about who retains the pet appear similar to disputes about children, with competing proposals for sole residence, shared care and spending time with the pet. The recent case of Downey & Beale [2017] FCCA 316 illustrates how pet disputes are decided.

Do the courts often deal with pet disputes?

Disputes about pets are rarely decided by Family Law Courts in Australia. A major impediment is that the sentimental value of the pets significantly outweighs their monetary value.

One rare example was Jarvis & Weston [2007] FamCA 1339. There was a brief discussion about whether there was jurisdiction to make orders with respect to the child’s dog. Moore J decided that whether she was exercising accrued, associated, inherent or parens patriae jurisdiction, the dog was to travel between the houses of the parents with the child.

What principles apply?

Judge Harman seemed to relish the opportunity in Downey & Beale to consider how the Family Law Act 1975 applied to pets. He was well-prepared, having delivered at least one conference paper on the topic.

Some parties think that disputes about pets should be decided in accordance with the best interest principles, and look to the checklist of factors in s 60CC Family Law Act. However, these principles apply to disputes about parenting arrangements for children. In Downey & Beale, Harman J applied the property settlement principles laid out in s 79 of the Family Law Act.

The dispute in Downey & Beale

The parties had negotiated the settlement of their property dispute except for one item, being the ownership of the dog. The wife sought an order that the husband transfer the registration of the dog to her. Harman J said (at [12]):

“Nothing that is contained within these reasons is intended to depart from legal principle, nor intended to be in any way flippant. I am conscious of that, opined by Roger Caras, “dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole”. I am completely empathetic with the importance this issue holds for the parties and conscious that the parties and each of them may consider this sentient creature, this living being, as fundamentally important to them.”

There was no evidence as to the dog’s value and the breed was not reported. The parties did not argue that the worth of the dog was monetary, and Harman J said (at [19]):

“His worth is their love and affection for the creature as they express it.”

In accordance with Stanford v Stanford (2012) FLC 93-518, Harman J examined the existing legal and equitable interests of the parties in the dog.

There was no dispute that the purchase price was paid by the husband but Harman J said that this did not determine who owned the dog. The parties disagreed as to the circumstances in which the purchase was made. Each asserted that they were the owner of the dog. Harman J referred to the Companion Animals Act 1998 (NSW) which gave some guidance as to ownership. That Act imposes obligations upon owners of companion animals, including to register the dog’s ownership within 6 months of acquisition. There was no dispute that this did not occur. Harman J issued s 128 certificates under the Evidence Act 1995 to protect the parties regarding their evidence. He did this because it was a criminal offence to fail to register a companion animal.

There was no controversy that following the marriage of the parties that the dog lived with the parties jointly and that following separation the dog lived solely with the wife. The wife also relied on her payment of the veterinary bills and the purchase of items for the dog. She produced veterinary bills addressed to her and which described her as “owner”.

The husband registered the dog in his name 8 months after separation, and after the wife had given notice in her affidavit that she asserted ownership of the dog.

Section 7 of the Companion Animals Act provides a definition of “owner” being the person by whom an animal is ordinarily kept or the registered owner. According to that definition, after 4 November 2016, being the date that the husband registered the dog as his, he was the owner. At any time prior to the date of registration, the person by whom the animal was ordinarily kept was the owner, and that was clearly the wife.

Harman J considered the issue of contributions under s 79 of the Family Law Act. Although the husband contributed the funds to the purchase of the dog prior to the marriage of the parties, the wife had clearly made contributions to the maintenance and improvement of the asset. Veterinary bills addressed to the wife at her address at her parents’ home were not conclusive proof as to where the dog lived, but clearly demonstrated that the wife was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the dog to the extent of attending to veterinary appointments and payment.

Harman J could not see how the s 75(2) factors could assist or apply. He said (at [45]):

“It beggars belief to contemplate how s 75(2) of the Family Law Act 1975 would be of assistance in this determination, unless one were to place some value upon love and affection. One would hope in this neo-liberal world that we have not yet come to the point where even love and affection are commoditised.”

He considered that perhaps a service animal, such as a Seeing Eye dog, might make s 75(2) relevant but it was not relevant in this case. He did not refer to s 75(2)(c) which requires a consideration of “whether either party has the care or control of a child of the marriage who has not attained the age of 18 years”, but arguably this might have been a factor if the parties had children. In any event, each party argued their cases on the basis of ownership.

The wife also gave evidence that irrespective of who paid for the dog, it was purchased for her as a gift. Harman J did not venture into the territory of jurisprudence regarding gifts and equitable relief. He was already satisfied that the wife was the owner of the dog, had possession of the dog and had contributed to the dog, so that it was not appropriate for any order to be made varying ownership of the dog.

Orders were made to:

  • Dismiss the application of the husband for an order adjusting interests in property with respect to the chattel comprised of the dog (name omitted).
  • Pursuant to s 78 of the Family Law Act declare the wife as the owner of the dog as and against the husband.
  • As far as necessary, require the husband to do all things necessary to cause the registration of the former matrimonial dog (name omitted) to be transferred into the wife’s name alone.

What next?

Despite Downey & Beale, it is unlikely that we will see a flood of pet disputes decided in Family Law Courts in Australia, given the vast numbers of parenting and property disputes awaiting determination and the limited judicial resources available. Most judges view disputes over pets in the same way as disputes over furniture and other chattels – trivial matters which are a waste of judicial resources – despite the potentially heavy emotional impact on one of the parties of an unfavourable outcome.

However, the case provides some useful guidance for family lawyers and family dispute resolution practitioners, to help parties resolve pet disputes without litigation.

 

 

©  Copyright – CCH and Jacqueline Campbell.  This paper uses some material written by the author for publication in CCH Australian Family Law and Practice.  The material is used with the kind permission of CCH.

Jacky Campbell

Partner

University qualifications

Master of Laws, Monash University

Bachelor of Laws, Monash University

Bachelor of Arts, Monash University

Graduate Diploma of Professional Writing, Deakin University

Other qualifications
Accredited Family Law Specialist,
Law Institute of Victoria

Email Jacky Campbell
jcampbell@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Connect on LinkedIn

Publications
To read Jacky Campbell’s articles and papers click here.

In 2020, Jacky was recognised as a leading family lawyer in Melbourne by Doyle’s Guide to the Australian Legal Market as well as one of Melbourne’s leading family lawyers in High-value and Complex Property matters, and a recommended lawyer in parenting matters. Jacky was also a recommended lawyer in the Doyle’s leading family and divorce lawyers in Australia. Jacky writes extensively on complex aspects of family law and her up-to-date knowledge means that she is able to provide accurate information about the law. She combines this with offering strategic advice to clients and guidance as to the best approach to take in their particular circumstances.

Jacky wrote her Masters thesis on the relationship of bankruptcy and family law. She continues to have a special interest in matters involving bankruptcy, insolvency, liquidation and receivership.

Jacky received the Law Institute of Victoria Rogers Legal Writing Award 2004—for the article “Splitting the Super…and Selling the Home”. She is experienced with complex superannuation interests such as defined benefit funds and self managed superannuation funds.

Jacky is the consultant editor of Wolters Kluwer/CCH Australian Family Law and Practice and contributing author to Wolters Kluwer/CCH Australian Family Law and Practice to the Property, Spousal Maintenance, Financial Agreements, Maintenance Agreements, Procedure and Precedents tabs. She writes several chapters of the Wolters/Kluwer CCH Australian Master Family Law Guide, and is the author of the family law chapters in the Thomson-Reuters Australian Financial Planning Handbook and in the CCH Australian Master Superannuation Guide.

Jacky is a Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers, a board member of the Asia Pacific Chapter of that Academy, and an Associate of the American Bar Association. She acts for many clients who are overseas or where there is an international element such as overseas assets and international child abduction under the Hague Convention. She is also experienced in Australian and overseas surrogacy arrangements and in disputes about the role of a sperm donor. She is a member of the Maintenance and Property Committee of the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria, the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and Victorian Women Lawyers.

Jacky is keen to assist clients to resolve matters before trial through alternative dispute resolution processes including mediation. She is a trained arbitrator and is an arbitrator with The Alternative Courtroom.

Wendy Kayler-Thomson

PARTNER

University qualifications

Master of Laws, Monash University

Bachelor of Laws, University of Melbourne

Bachelor of Commerce, University of Melbourne

Other qualifications
Accredited Family Law Specialist, Law Institute of Victoria

Email Wendy Kayler-Thomson
wkaylerthomson@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Connect on LinkedIn

Wendy Kayler-Thomson is a partner of Forte Family Lawyers and has practised as a lawyer specialising in family law for more than 25 years. Wendy is recognised as one of Melbourne’s leading family lawyers in Doyle’s 2020 Guide to the Australian Legal Market.

Wendy is the Immediate Past Chair of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia, the peak body for Australian family lawyers, and has been a member of the Executive of the Family Law Section for more than 10 years. The Family Law Section is regularly consulted by the Federal government and the Courts about changes to family law and court procedures. As a result, Wendy is able to offer her clients the most up to date advice on family law and strategies to take advantage of future changes.

Wendy’s time as Chair of the Family Law Section (from 2016 to 2018) coincided with a period of great controversy and unprecedented attention on the reform of family law and the family law system. This included the Victorian Royal Commission into family violence, the Federal Parliamentary enquiry into the family law system and family violence, the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Family Law Review and the Federal Government’s proposal to restructure the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court.

Wendy was a member of the Advisory Committee to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Family Law Review, the most comprehensive review of family law and the family law sector in 40 years.

Wendy was also a member of the Advisory Committee to the Law Council of Australia’s 2018 Justice Project, chaired by former High Court of Australia Chief Justice, the Hon. Robert French. The Justice Project is one of the most comprehensive, national reviews into the state of access to justice in Australia in the past 40 years.

Wendy develops close and trusted relationships with her clients and the wide network of professionals that refer her work. Wendy’s approach is tailored to each individual client’s needs, recognising that for most people, the breakdown of a relationship is one of their most stressful and challenging experiences. Wendy brings a high attention to detail, strategic advice and a depth of expert knowledge about family law. Wendy has a commercial background and has acted for many clients with complex financial arrangements. She works closely with her clients’ accountants and other professional advisors to ensure that all the complexities of those arrangements, including tax impacts and restructuring, are dealt with as part of any settlement.

Wendy has undertaken extensive training in a wide range of social sciences that impact on families and their children, including family and domestic violence, parental alienation, personality disorders, drug and alcohol addiction and high conflict. Wendy’s clients benefit from her knowledge of the most up to date approaches by child psychologists and other experts to managing the post-separation care arrangements of children. Wendy has particular expertise in cases where one parent wants to relocate with the children interstate or overseas.

Wendy is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria, the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators and Victorian Women Lawyers.

Jemma Mackenzie

Senior Associate

University qualifications

Bachelor of Laws (Hons) Monash University
Bachelor of Arts (Hons) Monash University

Email Jemma Mackenzie
jmackenzie@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Other qualifications
Accredited Family Law Specialist,
Law Institute of Victoria

Connect on LinkedIn

Jemma is a Senior Associate at Forte Family Lawyers. She has worked predominantly in family law since being admitted to legal practice in December 2009.

Jemma obtained Specialist Accreditation as a Family Lawyer from the Law Institute of Victoria in 2015. Accreditation recognises the high level of knowledge and practical skills Jemma brings to each family law matter.

Jemma is mindful that the breakdown of a marriage or de facto relationship can be a stressful and often overwhelming experience for clients. She works with her clients to identify appropriate pathways for resolving both parenting and property matters.

Jemma prides herself on her ability to effectively communicate what can be complex legal principles and to provide realistic, up to date and accurate legal advice at each stage of a matter.

Jemma has experience in a wide variety of family law matters including division of property, maintenance (including urgent applications), Financial Agreements (including Agreements made prior to marriage), care and living arrangements for children, child support and family violence – including Intervention Order proceedings.

Prior to joining Forte Family Lawyers, Jemma worked in a Bayside family law firm and a boutique firm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. She has conducted litigation in both the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court in Melbourne and interstate.

In addition to her daily work with clients, Jemma has made presentations to financial advisors and medico-legal professionals about the family law system in Australia and what clients should know about family law prior to separating.

Jemma is a member of Victorian Women Lawyers, the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria.

Kristy Haranas

Senior Associate

University qualifications

Bachelor of Laws, James Cook University

Email Kristy Haranas
kharanas@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Other qualifications
Accredited Family Law Specialist,
Law Institute of Victoria

Connect on LinkedIn

Kristy is a Senior Associate at Forte Family Lawyers. Kristy is an Accredited Family Law Specialist as recognised by the Law Institute of Victoria. Accredited Specialists are required to maintain a high degree of continuing professional development to ensure their advice is based on the most current legal principles and to the highest possible standard. Kristy was recognised in the 2020 edition of Doyles Guide as a Family Law Rising Star.

Kristy has undertaken further tertiary study in the area of family law and has a Masters of Applied Law (Family Law) from the College of Law.

Prior to joining the firm, Kristy worked in a range of practice areas including several years in family law in Queensland. Kristy also worked a lawyer for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission on large-scale financial investigations. During her time at AISC Kristy gained valuable commercial experience and developed a high level of attention to detail which she now applies to her work in family law financial cases.

Kristy has a wide range of experience in different areas of family law including parenting issues, property settlements (including complex matters with multifaceted trust/corporate structures), financial agreements, child support and family violence cases.

Kristy prides herself on building strong relationships with clients from the outset. Kristy recognises that for most people, the breakdown of a relationship can result in stress, conflict and confusion. As a result, Kristy ensures that clients receive not only strategic and commercially focused legal advice, but empathy and compassion. Kristy has strong communication skills which she uses to confidently guide clients through what can sometimes feel like a complicated legal system.

Kristy is a member of the Courts Practice Committee of the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria which provides her with valuable insight into recent developments in the Family Law Courts. Kristy is also a member of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and Victorian Women Lawyers.

Matthew Beckmans

Senior Associate

University qualifications

Bachelor of Laws, University of Western Sydney

Email Matthew Beckmans
mbeckmans@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Connect on LinkedIn

Matthew commenced his legal career practising in a medium-sized rural law firm. Matthew is able to draw on his broad experiences over a number of practice areas, prior to practising exclusively in family law, to offer clients a well-rounded approach to tactically resolve complex legal issues.

Matthew has developed a special interest in complex disputes involving companies and trusts, insolvency and bankruptcy, taxation, and international/domestic relocation.  He also has a particular expertise in child support.

Matthew is aware and mindful of the financial challenges and restraints when attempting to resolve family law disputes, and sets out to achieve negotiated and cost effective outcomes which avoid court where possible. Matthew recognises the emotional issues attached to the breakdown of a relationship, and draws on his strong communication skills in demystifying the family law process, and to identify and explain possible options for resolution in a concise manner.

Matthew was a member of the steering committee of the Riverina Family Law Pathways Network, secretary of the South West Slopes Law Society, and a mock trial magistrate for the Law Society of New South Wales.

Prior to practising law, Matthew was rookie listed by the Sydney Swans, where he enjoyed a brief career.  He now plays for the Monash Blues in the VAFA.

Matthew is a member of the Family Law Sections of the Law Council of Australia and the Law Institute of Victoria.  He is on the Court Practice Committee of the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria.

Vinh Nguyen

Associate

University qualifications

Bachelor of Laws, Deakin University

Bachelor of Commerce, Deakin University

Email Vinh Nguyen
vnguyen@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Connect on LinkedIn

Vinh first worked at Forte Family Lawyers as part of his Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice at the Leo Cussen Institute for Law in 2017. He joined Forte Family Lawyers as a lawyer after his admission into legal practice in October 2017 and has, since then, worked solely in family law.

Prior to his admission as a lawyer, Vinh worked as a paralegal in a community legal centre and in a property and commercial law firm, where he gained valuable experience in property transactions.

Vinh is a member of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia, the Law Institute of Victoria and the Asian Australian Lawyers’ Association. Vinh also volunteers at the Darebin Community Legal Centre.

Vinh is fluent in Vietnamese.

 

 

 

Natasha Mastroianni

Associate

University Qualifications

Bachelor of Laws (Hons), Latrobe University

Bachelor of Arts, Latrobe University

Masters of Applied Law (Family Law), College of Law

Email Natasha Mastroianni

nmastroianni@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

 

 

Connect on LinkedIn

Natasha Mastroianni has experience in a range of family law matters, including property settlements, financial agreements, parenting matters (including interstate and overseas relocation issues), child support and intervention order proceedings.

Natasha was admitted to practice in August 2014 and commenced her career in a generalist practice where she gained experience in family law, property law, wills and estates. Natasha worked in a boutique family law practice prior to commencing at Forte in February 2020.

Natasha has a Masters of Applied Law (Family Law) from the College of Law and speaks conversational Italian.

Having practical experience in other areas of law assists Natasha to understand the interrelated issues involved in her clients’ family law matters. She regularly appears on behalf of clients at Duty List Hearings and other Court events in the Federal Circuit Court, Family Court of Australia and the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. Natasha also appears as a solicitor agent for interstate or rural practitioners when required.

Natasha prides herself on being able to understand and manage her clients’ expectations whilst providing realistic and practical advice. She acts with empathy and compassion when striving to achieve the best possible results for her clients.

Natasha is a volunteer lawyer with the Women’s Legal Service and is the Vice President of the Northern Suburbs Law Association. She is also a member of the Courts Practice Committee of the Family Law Section of the Law Institute of Victoria, the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and Victorian Women Lawyers.

Mark Di Donato

Lawyer

University Qualifications

Bachelor of Criminology and Justice, Navitas College of Public Safety

Juris Doctor, Monash University

Email Mark Di Donato

mdidonato@fortefamilylawyers.com.au

Connect on LinkedIn

Mark started work at Forte Family Lawyers as part of his Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice at the Leo Cussen Institute for Law in 2019. Mark was later admitted into the legal practice in September 2019 and transitioned into a lawyer role with Forte Family Lawyers in February 2020.

Prior to his admission as a lawyer, Mark volunteered as a paralegal at Darebin Community Legal Centre and interned at a commercial law firm, where he gained valuable experience in property transactions and in intellectual property. Mark also completed a Professional Placement whilst completing his law degree where he provided legal advice on various family law matters through the Monash Law Clinic.

Mark is a member of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia, and the Law Institute of Victoria. Mark volunteers at the Darebin Community Legal Centre and has provided advice on a range of issues including family law.