Jenni BlissettAfter a long marriage Mr and Mrs Pratt separated, following which property settlement and spousal maintenance proceedings were listed for a three day hearing.

At the commencement of the hearing, the wife sought an adjournment for a significant period, being two years. The trial judge ordered the proceedings be adjourned for at least three years. Also, the husband’s application for a reduction in spousal maintenance (he was paying $6,500.00 per month) was dismissed.

The application for a lengthy adjournment was provided for under Section 70(5) of the Family Law Act. In general terms,
this section of the Act provides that if there is likely to be a significant change in the financial circumstances of the parties to the marriage and having regard for the time when a change is likely to take place, it is reasonable to adjourn proceedings. Also if the
significant change in the financial circumstances is more likely to do justice between the parties than an order that the court could make immediately with respect the division of property.

The facts of the matter were as follows:

The parties owned a large landholding in the Northern Territory used for cattle grazing. In 2010 the properties were valued at $26 million. 11 months later a different valuer said the property was worth $16.4 million. It was common ground that the large Northern Territory cattle property had fallen in value. There was a loan facility from the parties’ bank for $34 million and interest at 9.52% was accruing. As at October 2011 the interest would have amounted to about $3 million.

The wife submitted that “the cattle area valued” could be expected to increase over a two year time frame when the live cattle market would ease or new markets would open. On the other hand, it was argued for the husband it was unknown how long it would take for the market to adapt to change.

The trial judge concluded that given the parlous state of the parties’ finances, he was not satisfied that within two years an increased value was feasible, but hoped an increase would occur over three years, when the parties would be able to get something for their endeavours. Thus the trial judge exercised his discretion and adjourned for a period of three years.

On appeal, the Full Court found against such lengthy adjournment. The Court held that the section required an affirmative opinion that there was likely to be a significant change in financial circumstances that made it reasonable to adjourn the proceedings. The Court accepted, that the expert evidence did no more than speculate an improvement in the market for rural properties if a number of events occurred, none of which was expressed as a certainty. The Full Court held that the hearing should proceed.

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