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What is a “meaningful relationship” in family law?

By May 19, 2022February 23rd, 2024No Comments

If you are going through a family law dispute over parenting arrangements, it’s possible you will already have come across the term “meaningful relationship” between a parent and a child. In Australia’s Family Law Act 1975 (the Act), determining what is in a child’s best interests is the paramount consideration for the family courts when making parenting orders. And when working out what is in a child’s best interests, the courts must take into account two primary considerations: the benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both parents, and the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm. However, the Act doesn’t actually define what is meant by “meaningful relationship”. The interpretation of that term has been solidified instead by case law, which has led to general guiding principles as to what constitutes a “meaningful relationship”. Here, we take a look at what those guiding principles are.

The concept of a “meaningful relationship” was introduced in the 2006 amendments to the Act, at the same time as the concept of the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility was introduced. Since then, case law has established that a meaningful relationship is synonymous with one that is “important”, “significant”, “of consequence”, or “valuable” to the child.

Here’s what’s good to know about what is meant by a “meaningful relationship” in family law.

A “meaningful relationship” varies depending on circumstances

First of all, it’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for working out if a child will benefit from a meaningful relationship with a parent. The nature and quality of each child-parent relationship is assessed on a case by case basis after taking into account all the relevant circumstances. 

The potential benefit is outweighed by a child’s safety needs

Since 2011, the courts have been required to place greater weight on the second primary consideration, namely the need to protect a child from harm. As such, even when there is a great benefit to the child from having a meaningful relationship with each parent, more weight must be given to protecting the child from harm.

A “meaningful relationship” is not about quantity of time

A child does not need to spend a certain amount of time with a parent in order to have a meaningful relationship with them. Rather than being about parcels of time adding up to being meaningful, the concept is about parental attunement to the child and meeting their needs. It’s about the quality of time spent with the child, not the quantity.

It’s future-oriented

The case law has also provided authority for the concept that a “meaningful relationship” is a prospective one. In other words, the courts will examine whether there can be a beneficial meaningful relationship between the parent and the child going forward, rather than whether such a meaningful relationship already exists. For instance, a biological parent who has not been in a child’s life previously may not have an established meaningful relationship with the child. But, there may be the prospect that the parent will become involved in the child’s life, and therefore that the relationship could become meaningful and benefit the child.

A “meaningful relationship” must be supported by the co-parent

The courts have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of each co-parent encouraging and supporting the other co-parent’s meaningful relationship with the child. In cases where a primary carer parent has been found to be deliberately preventing the child from having a meaningful relationship with the other parent, with no justification (such as family violence concerns), the courts have been prepared to reverse custody arrangements. On the other hand in cases where a parent genuinely supports the meaningful relationship, this is viewed positively by courts.

The relationship is meaningful for the child, not the parent

It’s good to bear in mind that the adjective “meaningful” is intended to relate to the significance of the relationship to the child, not the parent. As with all aspects of parenting matters under the Act, it’s about the rights of the child—parents do not in fact have “rights” under our family law.

A “meaningful relationship” is not the only consideration

As discussed, the benefit to a child of having a meaningful relationship is enshrined as one of the two primary considerations under the Act. However, there are also a range of additional considerations that the courts must consider.

Additional considerations include the child’s views (depending on age and maturity), the child’s relationship with the child’s parents and others, parental abilities and commitment and ability to provide for the child’s needs, the effect of changes in the child’s circumstances, the practical difficulty and expense of spending time and communicating with a parent, any family violence issues or family violence orders, and the child’s particular characteristics (eg. lifestyle and background, including cultural considerations).

If you need assistance with a parenting matter, or any other family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.

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