Trask & Westlake 2015 FamCAFC 160

In Trask & Westlake, the Full Court heard an appeal brought by the husband against property adjustment orders made by Alridge J.

The parties had been married for eleven years and took on traditional roles during the marriage. The husband historically earned a very high income. Post-separation his income increased. The wife, though educated, had never held full-time employment and would need substantial re-training. The family had significant wealth and multiple property assets both in Australia and overseas. The husband made significant post-separation financial contributions through his employment and argued that the trial judge had attributed excess weight to the non-financial post-separation contributions of the wife.

Aldridge J found that the wife’s contributions were a continuation of the roles that the parties had each undertaken in this particular marriage while it subsisted. The Full Court did not disturb the finding that the post-separation contributions of the wife, whilst not financial, should still be given equal weight to those of the husband.

At [14] the Full Court said:

The husband’s written outline of argument calculates the percentage of the total value of the property represented by the husband’s post-separation cash injections. That can be a useful measuring stick, but the assessment of contributions remains “a matter of judgment and not of computation” (In the Marriage of Garrett (1984) FLC 91-539 at 79,372). That it must be so is emphasised by the fact that the percentage figure pertaining to direct financial contributions is being compared to the extremely important contributions made by the wife in maintaining a home as a single parent to four children dealing with the separation of their parents. Those contributions are not susceptible to any such mathematical calculation. His Honour plainly, and with respect correctly, recognised that the wife’s contributions did not cease upon separation but, rather, continued in circumstances made more difficult by the fact of separation. His Honour plainly accorded significant weight to those contributions.

Integral to the Full Court’s consideration of the appeal was the continuation of the parties’ roles post-separation. Whilst the husband’s income increased, the wife’s role was made more arduous by mere fact of separation. Importantly, the Court made no suggestion that had only the husband increased his financial contribution, or had only the wife’s non-financial contribution increased, the outcome would have differed. To understand the likely impact, if any, one need only turn to cases such as Figgins and Figgins (2002) FLC 93-122 and Petruski & Balewa (2013) 49 Fam LR 116.

At [15] the Full Court said:

… The years of cohabitation had embraced roles for the parties agreed between them that had led them to the point where one of them, the husband, received tangible recognition of, as his Honour put it, the “experience, knowledge and opportunities he had obtained in his earlier employment” (at [84]). The contributions of the wife are much less tangible. The lack of tangible recognition, or the fact that they are not susceptible to a dollar calculation, does not render them less important.

Ultimately, the husband’s challenge was one directed to the weight afforded to the wife’s contributions. It was not an appeal properly grounded on the misapplication of principle.

Referring to Sharman v Evans (1977) 138 CLR 563, the Full Court said at [17]:

This court, or any one of us, may have reached a different conclusion if charged as a trial judge with assessing those contributions. But, of course, that is insufficient to establish appealable error. The function of this court is “not to offer a second opinion” or to substitute our view of the application of s 79’s wide discretion for that of the trial judge. Indeed, “[i]t cannot be too strongly said that a mere difference of opinion … does not indicate error on the part of the trial Judge”.

While the Full Court allowed the appeal, it was not upheld on the basis that the trial judge had erred in attributing excess weight to the contributions of the wife, but rather on the basis that the original orders did not accurately reflect the judgment that had been made.