Adoption ruling 'a beacon of hope'

A High Court decision allowing a de facto couple to adopt has reignited calls for an overhaul of the law so that same-sex couples have the same rights.

Under the Adoption Act 1955, only married couples or individuals may adopt. Individuals in gay, lesbian and de facto heterosexual relationships can adopt, but their partners cannot share the same legal status.

But a decision in the High Court at Wellington this week overturned an earlier ruling preventing the couple from adopting, finding the term "spouses" applies to de facto couples.

"The necessary profile of the applicants, namely that they offer a mother and a father, is achieved," Justices John Wild and Simon France said in the decision.

The ruling applied only to heterosexual couples, although it would break break down a barrier and open the doors for other appeals, they said.

The decision comes nearly 10 years after a Law Commission report recommended adapting the adoption laws to allow both de facto and same-sex couples to adopt, and has reignited calls for the act to be overhauled.

Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight said the question now was whether the courts would extend the ruling to include same-sex relationships.

"The issue needs to be sorted, if not by the courts then by legislative amendment. There are numerous reports and calls for it to be sorted, and it should be expedited."

Green MP Kevin Hague, who is gay, said the decision would be a beacon of hope for many couples who wanted to adopt.

"There will be same-sex couples who will look at this decision and say well, actually, if a broader definition of spouse is going to be applied, then that gives hope to them."

Mr Hague sponsored a bill last year to give gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt. The bill was not drawn in the ballot, and he had since removed it, he said yesterday.

But he was still determined to get the Adoption Act changed to reflect modern values.

"The act is old, 1955, and it sort of fossilises attitudes towards relationships."

The law as it was now excluded people, which might mean the best parents for the children involved were not being considered, he said.

The act needed attention beyond the considerations of de facto and same-sex couples' rights.

Justice Minister Simon Power said the implications of the High Court decision would be considered by the Justice Ministry and the attorney-general, and a report would be prepared by Crown Law for both ministers.

But a review of the Adoption Act was not on the agenda, he said.

"The Government has a full work programme, and adoption is not part of it. We won't rule out looking at it in future, but it's not a priority."

Mr Hague said he was working with other parties to come up with a consensus on adoption matters.

THE CASE

The High Court at Wellington's decision dealt with a family of four. The couple have been together for about 10 years. When they met, the woman had an 18-month-old son, conceived using a sperm donor.

The man had been a parent to the son for most of his life, but was not his legal father. The couple have since had a child together. To become the son's legal father, the man could apply as an individual, but that would terminate the mother's legal rights as a parent, meaning that both parents had to apply to adopt the son.

In the decision, Justices John Wild and Simon France said the determining factor of "spouses" was that a committed relationship existed and, after 10 years together, with another child, that was clearly the case.

Lawyers for the Crown told the court it was up to Parliament to decide whether that should be extended to include de facto couples. But the judges pointed to various pieces of legislation, including the Companies Act, in which the word spouse includes de facto partners. All names in the case were suppressed, but the lawyer for the family, Claudia Geiringer, said they were "ecstatic" at the outcome.

The Dominion Post