In a recent Family Court decision, her Honour Justice Rees has taken what at first blush might seem the extraordinary step of banning a mother from attending at her child’s school. With a closer understanding of the facts of the case, the Judge’s decision is, perhaps, not quite so surprising.
The case, known by the Court as Materanzi v Suskain (although they are not the parties’ real names), involved an eight year old child, in relation to whom parenting Orders had previously been made by the Family Court in April 2011. The April 2011 Orders provided for the child to live with the father and spend time with the mother each alternate weekend from after school Friday until before school Monday and from after school Thursday to before school Friday in the other week.
Since those Orders were made, the mother:
- Persistently failed to take the child to school on Friday after she had spent Thursday night with her mother, with the child only attending on one of the relevant Fridays in a seven month period;
- Failed to ever take the child to school on a Monday after the child had spent the weekend with her mother;
- Routinely attended at the child’s school and removed the child from school before the school day had ended, including as early as 10am;
- Frequently attended at the child’s school and interrupted the child’s lessons;
- On numerous occasions, attended at the child’s school to replace the lunch provided by the father with one provided by the mother; and
- Took the child to a different school in a different school uniform.
Despite requests and correspondence from both the father and the school, the mother persisted in such activities, stating that she would continue to attend at the child’s school whenever she wished. She told the Court that she kept the child home from school and/ or picked her up early on other days because she wanted to spend more time with the child.
Both the father and the school were concerned that it was not in the child’s best interest for her to continue to miss approximately 1 day of school each week, nor to have her school days interrupted by her mother. If the mother’s actions were, indeed, prompted by her own desire to spend more time with her daughter, those actions suggest a lack of insight by the mother into the child’s best interests and an inability on the mother’s part to place the child’s best interests ahead of her own wishes.
In making a parenting Order, the Court’s primary consideration must be a child’s best interests. In this case, the Court shared the concerns of the father and the school about the impact of the mother’s behaviour on the child and her schooling. In order to redress that negative impact, Justice Rees amended the April 2011 parenting Orders such that the child would not spend overnight time with the mother immediately before a school day. That is, the mother’s time with the child was reduced to every second weekend from after school Friday until 7pm Sunday and every alternate Thursday from after school until 7pm. In addition, the Court issued an injunction restraining the mother from approaching, attending at and/ or removing the child from her school.
While that facts of this case are possibly extreme, it is nevertheless a useful reminder to separated parents that the Court’s primary consideration is the child’s best interests, not a parent’s wishes, and sometimes the child’s best interests can result in the child spending less time with one of his or her parents. It is important for parents’ post-separation actions to be as child -, not self-, focused as possible.