A number of Otago graduates will recall attending Professor Mark Henaghan’s lectures feeling inspired by the force of his personality, wisdom and insight. A vivid recollection of mine is Professor Henaghan reading Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. Henaghan came in the day of our final lecture of family law and simply read the story to us. A few of us were taken aback. We were told to remember when we are in our ivory towers that life is not all show, riches are not the making of a person and we must respect our fellow people from the person sweeping the street to a colleague.
This lesson stuck like no other. It planted a seed. A decade or so after this lecture my mind returned to Mark’s words and the story of The Happy Prince. Life was not just about the job and acquiring a career. There is more to life than this. I was an associate within a large Auckland commercial law firm, with three young children, often thinking how much I would like to return to post-graduate study in the field of relationship property law, to study something that I felt passionate about. This would involve stepping outside of the life plan and career path ahead of me but it was a step I wanted to explore.
Professor Henaghan enabled me to explore my fledgling ideas. The journey began when I called Mark. I explained I was interested in researching an area of relationship property law, but I was based in Auckland and was practicing in an area that was not directly related to the topic. I was not sure how post-graduate study could happen yet Professor Henaghan was immediately receptive and responsive to the idea.
My area of interest is section 15 of the Property (Relationships) Act 1976. This is a controversial provision enacted in 2002 and is intended to assist in remedying economic disparity between partners on the breakdown of their relationship. When I was in practice I would read articles on the topic with interest. The general consensus of the research was that the economic disparity provision was a failure. Professor Bill Atkin (of Victoria University) had said that “the time was rapidly approaching for proper research” into how s15 was in fact operating, this statement together with Professor Henaghan’s support compelled me to move forward with my ideas.
While my background was not family law I was able to transfer the skills I had developed from practice to my research. The supervisors that I had, Professor Mark Henaghan and Associate Professor Margaret Briggs, helped me along the way by supporting, questioning and talking to me so that ideas and concepts were developed and enhanced.
My final topic was “The impact of section 15 of the Property (Relationships) Act 1976 on the vexing problem of economic disparity” and over time the research developed from a Masters into a PhD. I was particularly interested in what took place outside of the courtroom. To address this issue I completed an empirical study involving practitioners and a contextual study group. It was an amazing process and my findings were rewarding. People want to help and are genuinely interested in research. I am particularly interested in how academic research can intersect with practice my belief is that there should be a strong interconnection between the two. I was fortunate to combine the two within my research.
While I completed my PhD remotely I was not alone. The Law Faculty (administration staff, law library and academic staff) were outstanding. There was always someone there to reply to an email or pick up the telephone. Professor Henaghan arranged for me to visit Otago a number of times so that we could work on things in person. When he was in Auckland we would also meet when needed. I not only had help from the Law Faculty but also Remote Services, Central Library, the Faculty of Medicine, the Mathematics and Statistics Department and a computer scientist from the Department of Nutrition.
Now that the PhD process is complete I can honestly say that it was a positive experience. This area of law fascinates me. I look forward to where the research takes me and it is with interest that I contemplate what use my research will be to others.