In this episode, I discuss how forum disputes are determined in family law, and how the process can differ depending on the subject matter of the proceedings.

Overview

A forum dispute arises when two different Courts are asked to determine the same subject matter.

In the family law context, this generally means a forum dispute between the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1 or Division 2), and a Court in another country.

Tests

Most Australian lawyers will be at least vaguely aware that the usual test to be applied to a forum dispute is whether the Australian Court is a clearly inappropriate forum.

We were taught a bit about that concept in law school.  We all have vague memories of authorities like Voth v Manildra Flour Mills.

However, like many other legal concepts, family law does things a bit differently.

Family Law Approach

In 1994, the High Court in ZP v PS, determined that the rule in Voth applied to all matrimonial proceeding except parenting matters.

Since then, the Full Court of the Family Court has repeatedly confirmed the approach to be taken in relation to forum disputes in family law.  

The correct test to be applied depends upon whether the forum dispute involves parenting issues. 

If parenting is in play, then it depends on whether the dispute is solely about parenting, or is about parenting amongst other matters.

In essence, if the forum dispute is solely about parenting, then the clearly inappropriate forum concept does not apply.  

In those cases, it is the usual question of the child’s best interests which will determine whether the parenting dispute is to be decided in Australia or in the other jurisdiction.

If the forum dispute involves issues other than parenting, then the clearly inappropriate forum test applies.

Interestingly, where more than parenting is involved, it is open to the Court to split the forum question, such that the forum dispute about parenting is determined separately on the basis of the child’s best interests, and the forum dispute about the balance of the issues is determined according to the clearly inappropriate forum test.

Best Interests

If the forum dispute is to be determined on the child’s best interests, those interests are assessed by the Court in the usual way.

Clearly Inappropriate Forum Test

If the clearly inappropriate forum test applies, there is guidance to be found in several Full Court decision as to what matters ought to be considered, in addition to the non-exhaustive list of considerations set out in Voth.

The matters to be addressed and considered with respect to each of the competing jurisdictions include:

  • Whether each competing Court has jurisdiction to deal with the dispute.  This is usually a given by the time the FCFCOA is asked to determine a forum dispute
  • Convenience, expense and location of witnesses.  If most of the relevant witnesses are in the foreign jurisdiction, then that would weigh in favour of Australia being a clearly inappropriate forum
  • Each party’s ability to participate in the proceedings (which can include things like language, and whether a person is required to personally attend the relevant Court)
  • Connection to jurisdictions, and issues upon which relief may depend
  • Whether each jurisdiction will recognise the other’s orders and decrees – this is an important factor when parenting is involved but the clearly inappropriate forum test applies, I’ll have more to say about this factor shortly
  •  Which forum may provide for effectively for a complete resolution of the parties’ controversy
  • The order in which competing proceedings were instituted, and costs which have been incurred
  • The governing law of the dispute
  • The place of residence of the parties
  • Availability of each forum, which includes issues like how long parties have to wait for a final hearing in each jurisdiction
  • Any legitimate juridical advantage to litigation in either jurisdiction

Recognition of orders by of other jurisdiction

The Full Court in the 2017 decision of Kent held on this point that:

If the orders of the foreign court will not be recognised in Australia, that will ordinarily dispose of any suggestion that the local proceedings should not continue.

If the matter involves parenting issues, this can be determinative of the forum dispute, so it is essential to research whether an order of the competing foreign jurisdiction will be recognised in Australia.  

We need to look s 70G of the FLA provides for the registration of “overseas child orders”.

The term “overseas child order” is defined in s 4(1) of the Act.  It means “an order made by a court of a prescribed overseas jurisdiction that…”

So what does that mean? We turn to the Family Law Regulations 1984, at regulation 14.

Sub-regulation (a) points us to Schedule 1A, and says that each country, or part of a country, set out in column 2 of that schedule is a prescribed overseas jurisdiction.

If the country, or part of the country, in which the competing court sits is not there, then the overseas child order will not be recognised in Australia.

For financial matters, the question is less clear. There is no equivalent provision to section 70G in relation to overseas property Orders.

There is, however, authority in relation to enforcement of overseas property orders.  A recent example is the 2022 decision of the FCFCOA (Div 1) sitting the Apellate Jurisdiction in the case of Yadu and Orjit, where the Full Court held that the enforcement of an overseas property order fell within a matrimonial cause for the purposes of section 114(3).

In that case, the foreign Court had made orders about property in Australia.

In my experience, it can be necessary for parties to obtain Orders in both jurisdictions.  

For example, a few years ago I was involved in a matter where the parties had property in Australia and mainland China. The parties had never lived in Australia prior to separation.

After separation, the husband had removed something like three quarters of a million dollars in matrimonial funds from China to buy real property in Australia with his new partner.

A Court in China made Orders about property owned by the parties there, but declined to make Orders about Australian property. Subsequently, my client, the wife, who had never lived in Australia, applied for property adjustment order here.

My client adduced expert evidence from her Chinese lawyer as to the inability of the Chinese Court to deal with Australian property.

The Court in Australia determined that it was appropriate for it to deal with the adjustment of the Australian property. 

These are issues which, in my view, need to be investigated and assessed in each case and in relation to each jurisdiction.

In my view, the question of the recognition by each competing jurisdiction of the other’s decrees is not likely to be determinative in property-only proceedings.