Regional | Open Justice

Kōtiro chooses whakapapa over Aus' birthplace in landmark case

The girls rejected Australia in favour of New Zealand, saying they wanted to get to know their father and their heritage. Photo / NZME

Two Australian-born girls involved in a trans-tasman parental dispute have been allowed to stay in Aotearoa after learning to love their Māori heritage.

Sisters Ginny and Della Mercer*, now both in their mid-teens, were born in Australia to an Australian mother and a Kiwi father who separated when the girls were small.

The father, Piripi Mercer*, returned to New Zealand permanently but the girls remained living in Australia with their mother.

They travelled to New Zealand to spend time with their father during their school holidays.

The girls had return tickets for such a three-week visit in 2021, but Piripi informed his ex-wife, Sharon Mercer*, four days before their return date that their daughters would be staying in New Zealand.

According to a recently-published Family Court decision, this was because they wished to live with their father and learn their whakapapa (genealogy) and Māoritanga (Māori culture).

Sharon flew to New Zealand soon afterwards but “was unable to secure their return”, the judgment of Judge Nicola Grimes stated.

She applied to the Family Court to have the girls returned to Australia under the Hague Convention, which is intended to ensure that children who are taken or kept overseas are returned as quickly as possible to the country where they usually live.

The judge said there was no dispute that Sharon’s custody rights had been breached and there were grounds for an order for the girls’ return to Australia.

However, Piripi opposed their return, arguing that Sharon had consented or acquiesced to the decision for them to stay in New Zealand, and because the girls themselves did not want to go back.

Judge Grimes found that the girls had a strong preference to live in New Zealand.

“The flipside to articulating that strong preference is that they do not want to go back to Australia, ie, they object to a return,” she said.

“Both, and in particular Della, want to continue their te reo and tikanga journey,” the judge said.

“They have not and cannot do that in Australia.”

Both girls liked their school friends, liked being close to their many cousins, and getting to know their father.

In particular, Della, the younger sister, was enjoying learning te reo and her whakapapa.

The judge said, after meeting the girls and having an open and candid discussion with them, that they had considered their lives in both countries.

“In both countries they have a parent they love, extended family, friends and no adverse child experience they want to forget.

“Against that background, both could articulate why they reject Australia in favour of New Zealand – namely to really get to know their father and heritage, overlaid by now having 13 months in New Zealand where they have forged friendships and stability that they do not want to give up.”

Judge Grimes dismissed Sharon’s application to return the girls to Australia.

* The names of the people in this story have been changed to comply with Family Court reporting restrictions. Names in this story are the same used by the court for the published version of the judge’s decision

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