Legal issues thought-provoking

''The law is an ass,'' declared a member of the audience at the Rural Women New Zealand midwinter seminar in Fairlie.

Her comment was among the plentiful feedback for speakers at the 17th annual seminar organised by South Canterbury RWNZ. The event has become renowned for presenting high-calibre speakers on topical subjects.

Dozens of women gathered at the Mackenzie Community Centre on June 19 to hear about ''Women and the law''.

South Canterbury RWNZ president Margaret Chapman said it was 14 years since a law seminar was held, and the subject was frequently requested by attendees when asked for ideas.

The morning speakers were RSM Law representatives Julia Traylor, Jan Birt and Greta Keenan, updating topics including succession planning, trusts, wills, enduring powers of attorney, gifting, residential care subsidies, relationship property, and custody and day-to-day child care after a relationship split.

The audience asked many questions about farm ownership and succession, seeking detailed information about how trusts operated.

Ms Traylor emphasised the importance of having an up-to-date will that was correctly signed and witnessed. It automatically revoked any previous will.

Gifting funds to family members and its effect on means testing for residential care subsidies was a complex subject that also drew plenty of questions and comments.

Ms Birt said there were 30,000 New Zealanders in long-term residential care. If people knew when they would need to go into care, it would be easier to plan when to gift funds; but because most had little idea in advance, it could be difficult to ensure they were eligible for the subsidy.

The thresholds were adjusted on July 1 each year, based on the Consumer Price Index.

''You need to be vigilant - watch what you give away,'' Ms Birt said.

''You can't be seen to be depriving yourself of assets or income that would have been able to go towards your care, and therefore put yourself at advantage over others needing care.''

Ms Keenan outlined the issues of child care for couples who had separated, saying 90% worked out their own arrangements without court intervention.

The court was ''quite supportive'' of grandparents and others who wanted to maintain contact with the children, she said.

The parent with day-to-day care must consult with the other parent on issues such as the child's name, place of residence, medical treatment, education, religion, culture and language.

The Christchurch earthquakes caused major problems with places of residence, Ms Keenan said, but the most common reasons for relocation were employment and family.

When it came to dividing property after a relationship split, debt was now included, along with contributions to Kiwisaver. The latter ''can be a big issue'', Ms Keenan said.

The afternoon speaker, University of Otago law lecturer Simon Connell, explained a fairly recent shift in how the court interpreted contracts. In the past it had been very literal, along the lines of the famous ''pound of flesh'' debate in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

Now, it tended to ''give the contract a meaning that has commercial sense'', Mr Connell said. That was on the basis that most parties would reach deals that were mutually beneficial, not very one-sided.

He then discussed the idea that pregnancy could be considered an accident, with the pregnant woman eligible to claim compensation under ACC. The cases that had gone to court related to failed sterilisation operations.

Mrs Chapman concluded the day by saying the seminar had served its purpose: ''to inform, to challenge, to entertain''.

- Sally Brooker