ANTHONY BIRGER BERENS
MICHELLE ELIZABETH BERENS
HIGH COURT OF ZIMBABWE
HARARE, 06 January 2009
Urgent Chamber Application
Advocate Fitches, for applicant
Mr. T.H. Chitapi, for respondent
CHITAKUNYE J: The applicant and the respondent are husband and wife. In HC 4530/07 the respondent instituted divorce proceedings. That divorce action is still pending. Arising from difficulties in their marriage the parties separated in or about April 2007 and they have been living apart since. On separation the custody of their three minor children remained with the respondent.
The respondent subsequently moved to Victoria Falls in or about December 2007. She took the children with her and enrolled them at a school in Victoria Falls. Their eldest child Mathew Lewis Berens born on 28 July 1996 is due to start secondary education this year 2009. Each parent has purportedly secured a secondary school place for him at their own school of choice. The Applicant said he has secured a place for Mathew at St. Johns College Harare as a day scholar whereas the Respondent said she had secured a place for Matthew at Falcon College, Esigodin as a boarder.
The applicant seeks an interim order to the effect that:-
The respondent be interdicted with immediate effect from interfering in or obstructing in any way the attendance at St. Johns College, Borrowdale, Harare of the minor child Matthew Lewis Berens to undertake his secondary education with effect from 12 January 2009.
The terms of the final order were that:-
“1. That the enrolment of the minor child MATTHEW LEWIS BERENS at St. Johns College Harare from January 2009 be and is hereby confirmed.
- that the secondary education of MATTHEW LEWIS BERENS at St. Johns
College shall commence on the 1stday of the 2009 Calendar year and shall
continue thereafter at the said College unless and until the parties may agree to
change the school, or until his attendance at the said school may for good cause
no longer be permissible or in his best interests”.
In seeking the above order the applicant in paragraph 31 of his founding affidavit alleged that:-
“In my capacity as Matthew’s natural father and co-guardian I do hereby request this Honourable Court to intervene as upper guardian of all minors, and to overrule what is, in my respectful submission the unreasonable decision by Matthew’s mother to enroll him at Falcon College in Esigodini near Bulawayo, where he has no family and friends at all, and to direct that he be enrolled at St. Johns College in Harare where he has his father and his devoted and caring grand mother (being my mother). And for which school (unlike Falcon) he has passed the entrance exam.
I should also point out that the respondent’s parents also live in Harare.”
The respondent’s response was to the effect that:-
“I oppose the relief sought vehemently. I have not acted unreasonably. Passing an entrance examination for St. Johns was excellent. However all private schools have the same criteria. I have already denied that it is a good ground to insist on a child attending a day school merely because his parents and grand parents will have access to him daily. Living away from applicant and the grand parents is of course not a new experience to Matthew.”
On her efforts at securing a place at Falcon respondent said that: -
“My position is that Matthew must attend Falcon College. He has been placed in Chubb House and he is wanted at the school on 10 January 2009. I attach and mark ‘H’ a copy of an e-mail confirming this.”
The parties are agreed that the respondent has sole custody of Matthew in terms of section 5(1) of the Guardian of Minors Act [Cap 5:08]. That section provides that:
“Where either of the parents of a minor leaves the other and such parents commence to live apart, the mother of that minor shall have the sole custody of that minor until an order regulating the custody of that minor is made under section four or this section or by a superior court such as is referred to in subparagraph (ii) of paragraph (a) of subsection (7).”
As the custodian parent respondent is given certain rights and powers in the exercise of such custody. In Makuni v Makuni 2001 (1) ZLR 189 GOWORA J alluded to the fact that a custodian parent is vested with all the rights that entail the nurturing, shaping and bringing up of the minor children. She quoted with approval from Boberg Family Law at page 460 where in the author stated that:
“ An award of custody to a mother entrusts to her all that is meant by the nurture and upbringing of the minor children, in this is included all that makes up the ordinary daily life of the child – shelter, nourishment and the training of the mind….The child…passes into the home of the mother, and there it must find all that is necessary to its growth in mind and body…A custodian parent has therefore the right to regulate the life of the child, determining with whom he should or should not associate, how he should be educated, what religious training he should receive and how his health should be cared for. The non-custodian parent has no right to interfere in these matters, though he may petition the court to do so if it appears that the custodian parent has exercised his discretion in a manner contrary to the interests of the child or in conflict with an order of court. Otherwise, he is confined to his right of access to the child.”
It should thus be clear that the custodian parent is empowered to make decisions on the day to day needs of the child without having to refer to the non custodian parent. One of those decisions is the choice of school for the child. In the exercise of such custody she may, if she so desires, consult the non-custodian parent. The non-custodian parent can apply for intervention in the choice or decision made by the custodian parent where such decision is not in the best interest of the child or the decision is inimical to the child. In such intervention the applicant needs to establish or show that the choice or decision is unreasonable or irrational or that no reasonable custodian parent can make such a decision and that such a decision is therefore not in the best interest of the child.
In casu, it is clear that each parent opted for a school of their own choice for their own reasons. In as far as respondent’s choice is concerned as the custodian parent the question is: is the decision by respondent to secure a place for Matthew at Falcon College unreasonable irrational or one such that no reasonable custodian parent can make? Can it be said the decision is not in the best interest of the child?
There is no dispute that the school chosen by respondent is an equally good school to that chosen by applicant. The applicant did not point at any areas of inferiority of that school as compared to St. Johns College. No differences in the quality of education offered thereat were alluded to. There was no challenge to the assertion on the well structured nature and disciplinary aspect of Falcon College. The applicant’s borne of contention was simply on the fact of the College being a boarding school and the lack of family or friends of Matthew at or near the school. Applicant was averse to Matthew attending a boarding school apparently because of his own childhood experience at a boarding school. The question that naturally arises is whether being a boarding school and in a place where Matthew has no family members or friends makes the choice of the school unreasonable or irrational and one that no reasonable custodian parent can make.
In my considered view, that is not so. The boarding facilities were not shown to be unsuitable for Matthew’s needs.
The issue of lack of friends is one that should not turn a good decision into a bad decision. As a child grows up whether in a new environment or familiar environment they make friends. In my view a child should not be denied a good education at a good school just because he has no friends at that school.
As for family members unless there is a particular need for family members to be close by in order to attend say to the child’s special needs, I do not see this as cause for concern.
The question of what is in the best interest of the minor has to be looked at from both short term and long term. In assessing such court has to consider that which will assist the child to grow up and not that which serves selfish parental interests but end up spoiling the child. Emotional or sentimental feelings maybe disturbed in the short term for the long term interest of the child.
On consultation it is my view that the custodian parent may consult the non custodial parent as this would in some cases be in the best interest of the minor. How ever failure to consult would not on its own turn a good decision into an un reasonable or irrational decision. Even where consultation has taken place the final decision is still with the custodian parent with the non custodian parent left to challenge such decision.
The non custodian parent is at liberty to apply for custody as provided for in the Act. It may also be pertinent to point out that the net effect of what the applicant seeks is to be granted custody without having applied for it in terms of the Act. This cannot be.
I am of the view that the application cannot succeed.
Accordingly the application is hereby dismissed with each party to bear their own costs.
Atherstone & Cook, legal practitioners for the applicant.
T. H. Chitapi & Associates, legal practitioners for the respondent.