Double-edged court ruling in three-year child custody tussle

After a three-year tussle over child custody, an unwed couple who split on their wedding day will have to live with a double-edged decision by a Hong Kong court.

The judge shifted existing care and control of the girl from the Australian father to the Singaporean mother but turned down her application to relocate here.

"The main obstacle to a shared or joint care and control order at this stage is the complete lack of trust and respect, the high conflict and lack of collaboration and compromise between the parties," said Hong Kong High Court Judge Bebe Pui Ying Chu.

"The fact remains the litigation between the parties is now in its third year, mediation had failed, the parties had to go through a five-day trial and litigation is ongoing with financial matters not resolved. All this speaks for itself," said the judge in decision grounds released in Hong Kong on Monday.

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The Australian insurance country manager, 38, and the Singaporean psychologist, 35, met in the Chinese city in 2010, started cohabiting in 2012, and had the baby in May 2013. But the Hong Kong permanent residents quarrelled on their big day, June 21, 2014, and cancelled the wedding.

Two days later, the mother left with the baby for Singapore. The father applied in Hong Kong for custody, care and control of the girl and also for her to be returned and made a ward of the court. The city's court made an interim order on access and made the girl a ward.

The mother subsequently started custody proceedings here. The father came here to stay the court proceedings in favour of Hong Kong, which High Court Judicial Commissioner Debbie Ong allowed in February 2015, ruling it was the appropriate forum.

In May 2015, the father obtained a Hong Kong order which ruled the couple would have joint custody but care and control was given to him. Mother and child returned to Hong Kong in March last year.

By then, the father had wedded a Hong Kong-based fitness trainer and both have a son. It also emerged the mother has a partner.

At issue in the recent Hong Kong hearing was who should have care and control, whether mother and daughter should be allowed to relocate to Singapore, and whether the girl should be de-warded.

The judge accepted that the mother's bid to relocate to Singapore was "genuine and not motivated by some selfish desire to exclude the father from the child's life".

But she held it best at this stage for the girl to remain in Hong Kong, given uncertainties in relocation, including the mother's relationship with her current partner.

The judge said, after " weighing up the factors", that the mother, being the primary caregiver, be granted sole care and control, with regular access for the father, who will have the girl stay with him every other weekend and on Father's Day, among other things.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Double-edged court ruling in three-year child custody tussle'. Print Edition | Subscribe