HUSBAND AND WIFE
Under the law which New Zealand inherited in 1840, the legal status of married women was pithily summarised in the saying that husband and wife are one person and the husband is that person. Not until 1884 did married women acquire the general power to own property in their own right.
Today husband and wife are for most purposes treated as separate individuals, although in some cases the law does recognise their special relationship. Thus their incomes are in certain cases aggregated for taxation purposes. Although since 1936 a husband has not been liable for his wife's contracts or torts, a deserted wife may pledge her husband's credit for necessaries. The law of theft has no application between spouses living together. Before 1962 a husband and wife could not conspire together for the purposes of criminal law. Unless a separation decree or order is in force, a husband cannot sue his wife in tort, and a wife can sue her husband only to protect her property. However, legislation has been introduced (1963) which will enable spouses to sue each other in all cases.
The principal relic of the wife's legal subjection is the rule that, on marriage, a woman automatically acquires her husband's domicile and is incapable of possessing a separate domicile. Thus, if a New Zealander deserts his wife here and acquires a domicile in, say, Yugoslavia, her domicile is thenceforth Yugoslav, though she may never leave this country. As legal rights and capacities often depend on domicile, this can have serious consequences. The worst anomalies have been cured by legislation, but an attempt in 1959 to abolish the rule altogether was defeated by the opposition of a conservative legal profession.
by Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.