Relocation disputes between parents are frequent in our courts. Relocation can involve relocation to another town, province or country. Where both parents have guardianship it necessarily follows that consent from both parents will be needed when one parent decide to relocate with a minor child. It is important to note that there is no section in the Children’s Act that deals specifically with relocation. The closest that the Children’s Act gets to relocation is section 45 that deals with the jurisdiction of the court in matters where a child is removed from the Republic of South Africa.
Typically a relocation dispute will arise where one parent, normally the parent of primary residence and with whom the child usually resides decides to leave the country or the province to live elsewhere. It then usually follows that the parent who is left behind refuses or disagrees to give consent that the child leaves with the other parent. Once the other parent disagrees or refuses to give consent, the primary caregiver can approach the High Court for an order dispensing with the other parent’s consent and remove the child to another country or province. It must be noted that it is not a given that the court will automatically give its consent. The reason therefore is that the Children’s Act does not set criteria and our courts have to consider various facts and case law before it will grant an order to the other parent to move the child.
If one has regards to previous case law it is clear that our courts will only grant permission based on the best interests of the child. An important factor that the court will take into consideration is whether the decision by the parent to relocate is reasonable and bona fide and this will be part of the valuation whether the move will be in the child’s best interests. If the court does find that the plan is reasonable then obviously the court will allow the parent to move the child. It is evident to note that our courts have taken a pragmatic approach and although the move may be to the detriment of the other parent who will have less contact with the child, life must go on. Another issue that comes into play is the fact that our courts have to respect the freedom of movement of family life of relocating parents.
The following passage from the case F v F 2006 (3) SA 42 (CA) is of importance:
“ It is an unfortunate reality of marital breakdown that the former spouses must go their separate ways and reconstruct their lives in a manner that each chooses alone”
A court must however also consider the impact that the relocation will have on the other parent who will be left behind. In looking at what is in the best interests of the child, a court should also look at whether relocation will be compatible with the child’s welfare. In F v F as sited above the court stressed the importance that it had to evaluate, weigh and balance a myriad of competing factors, including the child’s wishes in appropriate cases. In this matter the court rejected the mother’s application to relocate with her daughter despite finding that the decision to leave was bona fide. What the court found was that the practicalities of her decision to move were ill-researched and were outweighed by the child’s need not to be separated from either parent.
In the case of MK v RK case number 17189/08 in the South Gauteng High Court, the court followed a similar approach as in F v F. In this matter the child was living with the father. Here the court found that the father was thwarting attempts by the mother to rebuild her relationship with her daughter. The issues between the parties were acrimonious and the father alleged that the mother sexually abused the daughter years ago, based on these and various other factors, the court awarded custody to the father at the time the parties divorced and the child lived for several years with her father. The father then sought to relocate to Israel, although the mother initially gave her consent because she believed that she would be allowed contact with her child. She did however later withdraw her consent when she realised that this will never materialise. The court refused the relocation based on the fact that the father could not provide sufficient information when and where he would be employed, where the child would be going to school and how she would be assisted to learn Hebrew. The court also placed emphasis on the fact that it was important for the child to re-establish her relationship with her mother. What was also interesting in this case was that the court criticized the experts (psychologists) who recommended the relocation based on the fact that they did not considered all the facts and moreover that they did not considered all the evidence in making such far-reaching recommendations.
Another interesting case was that of HG v CG 2010 (3) SA 352 (ECP). This matter concerned four children whose parents were divorced. The eldest was then aged eleven and his siblings, a set of eight year old triplets, comprising two boys and a girl. In terms of the settlement agreement the parents were awarded joint custody. The intention being that the children would spend an equal amount of time with each parent and the children were spending alternate weeks with each parent.
Three years after the divorce the wife approached the High Court by way of an urgent application for variation of the custody order. In the application she sought an order declaring her the primary care provider of the children as well as the authority to permanently remove them from South Africa to Dubai to live with a new man whom she planned to marry.
Experts commissioned by the applicant, being a social worker and clinical psychologist, recommended that the applicant be the primary care provider and that she relocate with the children to Dubai as proposed. Experts not commissioned by her held a different view, finding that relocation would not be in the best interest of the children as they would miss their father, school friends and the city of Port Elizabeth to which they were accustomed. The mother’s application was dismissed and the court did not consent to the relocation as it found that it was not in the best interests of the children.