by Bertus Preller, Family Law Attorney, Abrahams and Gross Inc Cape Town.
Paternity fraud refers to a paternal discrepancy, in which a mother names a man to be the biological father of a child, particularly for self-interest, when she knows or suspects that he is indeed not the biological father.
Fathers’ rights activists’ state that in cases of paternity fraud, there are many potential victims: the non-biological father who pays erroneously maintenance, the child deprived of a relationship with his/her biological father, and the biological father who is deprived of his relationship with his child. Other victims include the child’s and the non-biological father’s families. In particular, financial hardship may have resulted for the non-biological father’s due to the maintenance and child support that he has to pay and his other children and spouse in cases in which the man was forced to make maintenance payments for another man’s child.
In Australia, mothers are being forced to pay back thousands of dollars to men they wrongly claimed fathered their children following a contentious reform of child support laws. The Australian face of paternity fraud is a Melbourne man named Liam Magill. In 2002, Magill’s ex-wife Meredith was ordered to pay him $70,000 for general damages and the economic loss he suffered as a consequence of her false declaration that he was, as one newspaper report put it, the biological father of “her lover’s children”.
In the UK, single mothers are deliberately naming the wrong man as the father of their children when making maintenance claims. Child Support Agency figures show that nearly one in five of the contested paternity claims it handled last year cleared the man originally named as the father. These are the actual figures. Its figures for 2007-2008, obtained under freedom of information rules, show that out of 3,474 DNA paternity tests ordered, 661 – 19 per cent – named the wrong man. It is the highest proportion since the agency started collating figures nationally. Government-approved DNA testing kits, deemed 99.99 per cent accurate, have exposed 4,854 false paternity claims since records began in 1998-99.
In the United States it is estimated that almost 30% of DNA paternity tests, excluded the man as the father of the child in question. Of the 353,387 cases in 2003, 99,174 (28.06%) were reported as exclusions.
Issues regarding paternity have been dealt with in a number of cases in the South African Courts.
Presumption of Paternity
The South African Children’s Act confirms in Section 36 a presumption in respect of a child born out of wedlock (parties who were not married to each other). The presumption is that the person whom had sexual intercourse with the mother at any time when that child could have been conceived will be presumed to be the biological father of the child in the absence of evidence to the contrary which raises reasonable doubt.
In the case of S v L 1992 (3) SA 713 (E) it was held that the phrase “in the absence of evidence to the contrary which raises reasonable doubt” means that whenever there is evidence to the contrary, the presumption does not operate or ceases to operate.
This is also in line with the court’s decision in R v Epstein 1951 (1) SA 278 (O), where it was held that a presumption operating “in the absence of evidence to the contrary” only requires evidence, not proof, to counteract the presumption. The Children’s Act does not define the word “evidence”, thus any acceptable evidence suffices, regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial, however, it must raise reasonable doubt.
Compelling a person to undergo a paternity test
Most recently in YM v LB 2010 ZASCA 106 the Supreme Court of Appeal had been given an opportunity to provide judicial clarity on the law relating to court-ordered blood testing of potential parents refusing to voluntary submit themselves (and/or the minor child) to such testing, but the Court most unfortunately elected to side-step the issue based on the facts of the matter. It is not suggested that the court was necessarily wrong in its final decision, but it was hoped that it would provide guidelines as to this issue of compelling adults and children to undergo blood tests to determine paternity. In this case the court of first instance ordered the parents and child to undergo paternity testing, the decision of the court was then taken on appeal.
The issue had been unclear for about 30 years and certainty regarding the obligation and power of the court to order such tests against the wishes of one of the parties would have been valuable. It was indeed a missed opportunity to clarify the law once and for all.
The true biological paternity of a child is of the utmost importance in South Africa as it determines the parental responsibilities and rights of parties, including contact, care and the duty to maintain the child until the child becomes self-supporting. The
South African law remains rooted in biology. Unfortunately, it is not unknown for a woman to lie about whom she had intercourse with, resulting in two legal consequences:
(a) the husband is legally regarded as the father of the child with the accompanying rights and obligations; and
(b) the biological father is denied his parental rights and responsibilities that he may have had or have obtained automatically vis-à-vis his biological child.
The first principle has its roots in Roman law. I can’t imagine that it was ever the aim of the Roman law principles to force the husband of a wife to support another man’s child without his knowledge. The common law principle of stuprum after all made provision for the annulment of a marriage where a husband discovers that his wife was pregnant with the child of another man at the time of the marriage.
With DNA testing becoming more common and now being done for a variety of reasons, including medical testing for potential illnesses, this has resulted in a spate of paternity fraud cases making headline news worldwide. In these cases the husband and the child discover years later that the paternity was based on a lie and that the husband had supported the child for years as a result of this fraud (see inter alia the facts of Johncom Media Investments v M 2009 4 SA 7 (CC) (South Africa); Magill v Magill  VSCA 51 (17 March 2005) (Australia), supra and the allegations of the horror film director Andrew Douglas against his ex-wife Ameena Meer (USA). This trend is unlikely to end.
In YM v LB, supra, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) found that where the paternity of the child has been shown on a balance of probabilities, as was the case in casu, scientific tests on a child should not be ordered. In this matter paternity was not really in dispute as both parties (at various times before the attorneys joined the show) believed that the man in question was the father of the child. The mother’s maternity was obviously never in doubt.
The court made the following observations:
(a) that as paternity is determined on a balance of probabilities, the man is not entitled to demand scientific proof;
(b) that in relevant instances, the court has the inherent power as upper guardian of all minor children to order such tests if it is in the best interests of the child;
(c) the SCA referred to the observations of the court a quo regarding truth as a primary value in the administration of justice, but by implication disagree with the statement.
The SCA did note that the rights of privacy and bodily integrity may be infringed if it is in the best interests of the child. However, it confirmed the statement made by Judge Didcott in an earlier case that it may not be in an individual’s best interest to know the truth. The court noted that in some cases it may be justified to order tests, but that the discovery of the truth should not be generalized. With these comments, the appeal was upheld.
The basis of a paternity matter is that the applicant will have to show that such a test would be in the best interest of the child. This in itself is extremely difficult as there seems to be no research done in South Africa as to the impact on a child that learns, at a much later stage, that his/her presumed father was not the biological father. One may argue that paternity testing may have a negative short-term impact on the family as it may reveal relationships that were previously unknown. After all, it has been acknowledged that from a broader family perspective, family genes are considered to be a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations. Personally I am yet to be convinced by our courts that it would be better not to know the truth or to keep the truth from a child at any age and I ponder whether this is indeed in the interests of a child. In disputed paternity claims the emotional trauma of uncertainty definitely taints the relationships between the parents and sometimes also the relationships between the probable father and the child. Trauma such as this can be easily be resolved through testing. For the SCA to note that the man is not entitled to scientific proof when the reality is that it can readily be done seems to unnecessarily muddle such an important issue with legalities.
In O v O, Friedman JP stated that there is no statutory or common-law power enabling the court to order an adult to allow a blood sample to be taken for the purpose of establishing paternity. Although there is still no such power it is submitted that Section 37 of the Children’s Act does not bring certainty. The section states that if a person in proceedings in which paternity of a child is challenged refuses to submit him/herself, or the child, to take blood samples in order to carry out a scientific test to prove the paternity of the child, then a presumption in our law exists in which the failure of such a party to agree to such a test may be used as evidence to prove the contrary. The effect of this section is that it compels a court to warn the person who has refused to have his/her or the child’s blood sample taken ‘of the effect’ which such refusal might have on his/her credibility. The problem is that the section does not go far enough and does not resolve the main issue, namely the truth about the paternity of the child.
Although the SCA overturned the initial decision of the High Court, namely to force the parents and the child to undergo DNA testing, it is submitted that certain statements of the original decision remains quite valid. The court of first instance confirmed that judicial notice may be taken of the existence of these tests and that it is unnecessary for medical evidence to be adduced regarding the nature and accuracy of these tests before and that this does not exclude any challenge to the reliability of any particular test in litigation once the test had been performed. There is however no guidance as to the most important question: whether or not it will be in the best interests of the minor child to determine paternity with certainty.
A number of questions still remain, most importantly what weight our courts in future will place on the argument that concealing the truth from a child might have the supposed advantage of not ‘bastardising’ the child or cutting it off from an established source of maintenance? It surely creates an inherent and inescapable injustice in compelling a person to assume obligations not rightfully his.
The father in the YM v LB matter did agree to a marriage, but not to raise another man’s child. What is also important is that a child of the age of 18 has the right to the medical information of his genetic parents in instances of artificial fertilisation and surrogacy which is recognised by section 41(1) of the Children’s Act. One may argue that by refusing the compelling of blood tests for paternity disputes in instances of natural conception would result in denying these children of their right to information of their genetic parents.
It is my respectful view that the court of first instance was correct when it concluded that it will be in the best interests of the child that paternity be scientifically determined and it is unfortunate that the SCA did not provide the legal fraternity with their wisdom.
Another recent decision, this time by the High Court in the Western Cape in the matter of N v J Case Number A653/2009 are of importance. This case concerned an appeal from the Magistrates Court. The Appellant (the Defendant in the court a quo) and the Respondent (the Plaintiff a quo) were married to each other on 25 February 1989. Their union bore a daughter, who was born in June 1990. For the sake of convenience I shall refer to the parties as in the court a quo. On 3 February 1995 the parties were divorced and pursuant thereto the Plaintiff was directed to maintain the child by effecting payment of the sum of R350,00 per month and to retain her on his medical aid fund.
It was common cause that during the period February 1995 to June 2006 the Plaintiff paid to the Defendant the sum of R50050,00 in respect of maintenance for the child. The said sum included payment of an amount of R1000,00 to a Primary School in January 2000. In June 2006 the child underwent a paternity test which showed conclusively that the Plaintiff was not her natural father. On 30 July 2007, pursuant to an application brought by the Plaintiff an order was granted declaring that the Plaintiff was not the natural father of The child and, inter alia, varying the divorce order in terms of Section 8 of the Divorce Act, 70 of 1979, by the deletion of the Plaintiff’s maintenance obligations towards The child. At the same time the Plaintiff instituted action in the Magistrate’s Court for recovery of the sum of R50050,00 that he paid in maintenance. His claim was upheld and the Defendant appealed against the order of the magistrate.
It was common cause that the parties were married on 25 February 1989 and that the child was born on 12 June 1990. Assuming a normal pregnancy of nine months, this would mean that the Defendant committed an act of adultery around September/October 1989 during which the child would have been conceived.
The Plaintiff testified that he had always believed that he was the natural father of the girl and that he raised her as such with the Defendant until they were divorced in February 1995. The Plaintiff further testified that he did not oppose his wife’s claims at divorce because he regarded the marriage as irretrievably broken down and because he believed that he was obliged to maintain the child whom he regarded as his daughter. After the divorce the Plaintiff maintained the child for more than ten years. He testified that he later became resentful about the Defendant’s persistent claims for maintenance increases and eventually decided to ask for a paternity test. The Plaintiff also testified that he was urged by certain family members to go for such tests. They evidently had reason to suspect that the Plaintiff was not the father and eventually he succumbed to their entreaties.
The Plaintiff stated that the Defendant never confessed her adultery to him and that his impression was that she never had any idea of who the real father of the child was. Under cross-examination the Plaintiff accepted that he had defaulted on his maintenance obligations over the years but said that he had then paid up in full from time to time. He confirmed that he had paid the maintenance because he was obliged to do so in terms of the divorce order. Unfortunately the Defendant did not testify and so one does not know the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. Importantly, there was no evidence to suggest that she knew that her adultery had resulted in the birth of the child and that she intentionally withheld that information from the Plaintiff. Had that been the case her claim in the divorce action for maintenance for the child would have been fraudulent and would have afforded the Plaintiff a different cause of action.
The Plaintiff’s legal obligation to pay the maintenance in respect of the child arises directly from an order of Court and was accordingly an obligation he could not avoid. The basis therefore was his assumption that a child born during the subsistence of the marriage was fathered by him. This is in accordance with the rebuttable common law presumption: pater est quem nuptiae demonstrant.
While it cannot be contended that the Plaintiff laboured under a mistake of law, the divorce order was underpinned by an erroneous factual assumption, (paternity) either by the parties jointly or, at least, by the Plaintiff. The Judge demonstrated that the SCA has disregarded any notional distinction between mistakes of law and fact: the focus is essentially on whether the payment was made indebitum i.e. without legal ground. While the parties were still married the Plaintiff maintained the child as a member of the household, believing that she was his child and that he was duty bound to do so. When the Defendant issued the divorce summons and claimed payment of maintenance for the child, the Plaintiff still believed that the child was his daughter. As stated, by not contesting the divorce action, he effectively consented to the Defendant’s claims, which included claims in compliance with the provisions of Section 6 of the Divorce Act which preclude the granting of a decree of divorce until the Court is satisfied that adequate provision has been made for the care and maintenance of any child born of the marriage.
Given the findings which the Judge made, it was not necessary to come to a final decision on this aspect of the case, save to state the father’s claim to re-claim the maintenance that he paid over the years did not succeed. Our courts may in the future be wary of recognising claims in circumstances such as the present which necessitate an enquiry into paternity and which may have the tendency to destroy an otherwise loving and caring parental relationship with a child whose rights to family and parental care are protected under section 28 of the Constitution.
What is disturbing is the fact that it is impossible to accurately estimate just how widespread paternity fraud is. One may assume that there are a plethora of men in South Africa who are currently raising another man’s child; blissfully unaware of the devastating truth. For each of these men, the truth will only be revealed if the woman who duped them decides to confess, or for some reason, a paternity test is taken. A real problem however is to compel someone to undergo such a test in legal terms as evidenced by the cases dealt with above. It remains to be seen how our courts will deal with this issue in future. Fact is that naming the wrong father, could result in criminal prosecution, if proven that the mother concealed the truth deliberately.
About the Author:
Bertus Preller is a Divorce and Family Law Attorney in Cape Town and has more than 20 years experience in law and 13 years as a practising attorney. He specializes in Family law and Divorce Law at Abrahams and Gross Attorneys Inc. in Cape Town and deals with Family Law cases on a national basis. Bertus is also the Family Law expert on Health24.com and on the expert panel of Law24.com. His areas of expertise are Divorce Law, Family Law, Divorce Mediation, Custody (care and contact) of children, same sex marriages, unmarried fathers rights, domestic violence matters and international divorce law.
Contact: 021 422 1323