The stress of natural disasters can put a huge strain on relationships. This was illustrated by the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, following which the Family Court was flooded with an increased number of issues coming before it. These commonly involved relocation of children, other disputes about parenting arrangements, and separating couples.

Relocation of Children

Relocation cases involve situations where one parent wants to move away with a child, and the other parent does not consent. The stakes are high given the impact that a move (either within New Zealand or overseas) can have on the relationship between the child and the parent left behind. See our Relocation of Children article for further information.

Where a child lives, and any changes to this, are guardianship issues. This means that all guardians (usually this is the parents) should consult with each other and reach agreement on these matters. If they cannot agree, then the Family Court can be asked to decide.

A number of earthquake-specific relocation cases came before the Family Court following the Canterbury earthquakes. This included:

  • Parents who fled Canterbury with their children unilaterally (without the other parent’s consent), and were then faced with the other parent applying to the court for their return; and
  • Parents who could not get consent from the other parent to move away with the children, and applied to the court for permission in advance. 

The courts do not tend to look favourably on parents who make unilateral decisions about children and fail to consult with the other legal guardians. In fact, in most instances of unilateral relocation following the Canterbury earthquakes, the Judges ordered that the children should be returned. The earthquakes were not seen as justification enough for breaching the other guardian’s rights.

In its usual course, relocation is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. A Judge will make a decision depending on the particular facts of the case, and there is no presumption either for or against relocation. The paramount consideration is the welfare and best interests of the particular child in his or her particular circumstances.

Seeking early legal advice in any relocation situation is important. If there is evidence that a child is about to be relocated without consent, it may be possible to urgently obtain a non-removal order to prevent this. Conversely, if you want to apply to relocate with a child then you need to get comprehensive advice. Thorough preparation is often the key.

Other Disputes about Parenting Arrangements

Parenting arrangements include where a child should live, and how much time a child should spend with each parent. This includes the day-to-day care and contact arrangements, which used to be known as custody and access.  

Ideally, people can discuss parenting arrangements between themselves and make child-focused decisions without the need for lawyers or court proceedings. However, there are various mechanisms available for resolving disputes when this is not the case. This includes revisiting the matter after completing the Ministry of Justice’s Parenting Through Separation programme, attending Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) mediation, negotiating via lawyers, having a meeting, or making an application to the Family Court (which is generally a last resort).

Unless there are issues of urgency or violence, you must have completed Parenting Through Separation, and attempted Family Dispute Resolution, before you can make a court application.


If you have separated, or are in the process of separating, it is important to get early legal advice.  This will ensure that you are well informed to make decisions through what is an inherently challenging time.

Some of the big issues that may need to be addressed include parenting arrangements for children, relationship property division, and financial maintenance. See our Separation IssuesSeparation and Property Division, and Interim Spousal Maintenance articles for further information. 

In summary, whatever the family law issue you or someone you know may be going through, early expert advice is crucial to making informed decisions and can help with peace of mind. If you would like any further information on these matters, please contact our Wellington based family lawyers Debbie Dunbar, email, phone (04) 495 9940 or Maretta Twentyman, email, phone (04) 495 8918

Further information can be found here: