CANBERRA, Australia - Australia's highest court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a sperm donor who had been actively involved in his daughter's life should be granted rights as a legal parent of the 11-year-old girl.
According to the High Court decision, the judge accepted that the 49-year-old Australian man had donated sperm to the girl's biological mother in 2006 with the intention of raising the child together.
A lower court's decision had previously ruled that the man was a "sperm donor" and denied of his status as a parent.
An Australian legal expert said that while the ruling shouldn't be reason to "panic" for future parents considering using a sperm or egg donor, it highlighted the need to be cautious.
"We need to be careful when making these long-term life decisions. In the long term, the court won't consider what we thought at the time, or what we planned, but what is in the child's best interests," said Cassandra Seery, an associate lecturer in Law at Deakin University.
The court documents used the pseudonyms Robert Masson for the donor and Susan Parsons for the girl's biological mother.
"He believed that he was fathering the child and would thus support and care for her. His name was entered on the child's birth certificate as her father,'' the judgment summary said.
However, after the child's conception, the biological parents had a disagreement, and the girl lived apart from Masson, with Parsons and her partner.
Yet the man continued to be heavily involved in the girl's life, playing an "ongoing role in the child's financial support, health, education and general welfare," according to court documents.
In 2015, Parsons and her partner announced that they planned to move to New Zealand with the girl. Masson initiated court proceedings, launching his lengthy legal battle for recognition as a parent, blocking the child and her family from moving overseas.
According to court documents, the Family Court of Australia ruled against Masson who then appealed to the High Court in the capital of Canberra.
Eventually, the judge deemed Masson's relationship with the child as an "extremely close and secure" attachment, and believed that his role in the girl's life surpassed that of a sperm donor.
Masson's lawyer, Tahlia Bleier, said that the term "sperm donor" implies that the man "does no more than provide his semen."
She argued that her client didn't suit this label, saying his "the established intention to co-parent and his enduring relationship and involvement" with the girl demonstrated his desire to be a father to his daughter.
"Potentially we'll see an increase of cases in family court of donors seeking involvement in a child's life. Time will tell," Bleier said.
The High Court didn't immediately respond to a request to be put in touch with the lawyers for Parsons and her partner.
Legal expert Seery said that while the ruling could appear to have far-reaching consequences for parents with children by anonymous sperm donors, the High Court decision was in many ways a special case.
"The sperm donor in this case clearly had a long-term ongoing connection with the child in question, they had a relationship that went beyond just visitations," she said, saying it would likely have been a different situation if the donor had been anonymous.
But Seery added that it wasn't just LGBTQ couples or single parents who were vulnerable to these kinds of disputes. "These kind of parental conflicts can and do arise and it's just about everyone taking care when they're thinking about a child," she said.
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