Supreme Court confirms that the Property (Relationships) Act can apply
In a split decision, the Supreme Court recently confirmed by 3:2 that polyamorous relationships (that is, relationships between three or more people) can be subdivided into two or more qualifying relationships, to which the provisions of the Property (Relationships) Act 1976 (which applies to relationships between two people) can apply.
Brett and Lilach Paul married in 1993. In about 1999, Brett and Lilach met Fiona. The three formed a triangular relationship in 2002.
During their 15-year relationship, all three lived on a farm at Kumeu that was registered in Fiona’s name. Lilach separated from Fiona and Brett in 2017. Fiona and Brett separated a few months later in 2018.
In 2019, Lilach brought an application in the Family Court, in which she sought orders determining the parties’ respective shares in relationship property, including the Kumeu farm.
Fiona objected to the court’s jurisdiction, on the basis that the parties were not in a qualifying relationship for the purposes of the Property (Relationships) Act 1976 (PRA).
The Family Court sought guidance from the High Court about its jurisdiction to hear the case.
In the High Court, Justice Hinton held that the Family Court did not have the jurisdiction to determine the property rights of three people in a polyamorous relationship, because the requirement, under section 2D of the PRA that the parties be living together as a couple, excluded a scenario where all three people are participating in a multi-partner relationship. Lilach appealed and the case went to the Court of Appeal.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal disagreed with the High Court’s framing of the question put to it and found that jurisdiction could exist in the case of a polyamorous relationship.
The court agreed that the PRA was concerned with relationships between two people, meaning that polyamorous or multi-partner relationships are not qualifying relationships under the PRA. The court noted, however, that sections 52A and 52B of the PRA specifically provide for claims where a person is in multiple contemporaneous qualifying relationships. It found that the PRA does not require exclusive coupledom.
Within that context, the court held that the relationship between the parties could be viewed as three separate, but contemporaneous, qualifying relationships – a marriage between Brett and Lilach, a de facto relationship between Brett and Fiona and a de facto relationship between Lilach and Fiona.
Fiona appealed to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court decision in June
In a decision released in June 2023, the Supreme Court (by a 3:2 majority) dismissed the appeal and confirmed that the PRA could apply to polyamorous relationships.
Specifically, the court held that:
- A triangular (three-party) relationship cannot itself be a qualifying relationship, but
- A triangular relationship can be subdivided into two or more qualifying relationships.
In reaching this conclusion, the three Supreme Court judges who were in the majority noted that it was not contentious that the PRA applied to what it referred to as ‘vee’ relationships. A vee relationship is one where party A is married to party B, and A is also in a consecutive or concurrent de facto relationship with C, but where parties B and C may not know about each other, and may or may not live in the same residence.
The question was then whether the ‘triangularity’ of the relationship (ie: the existence of a relationship between parties B and C) makes any difference to the analysis. The majority held that it did not.
As noted, the Supreme Court decision was spilt 3:2, with the minority indicating that they would have allowed the appeal.
Following this decision, there may be increased interest by parties in polyamorous relationships in having contracting out agreements put in place. There are also likely to be claims under the PRA following the breakdown of a relationship, or on the death of a party to the relationship.
As all the decisions to this point have dealt only with the question of jurisdiction, no decisions have been made yet about the division of property between Lilach, Fiona and Brett. That issue will be sent back to the Family Court.
 Mead v Paul  NZSC 70.
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