Out on the northwestern Manitoba range there’s a custody battle between a farmer and his former mistress in which ownership of 11 cows and their perhaps 22 calves is at stake. Manitoba Family Court and the Court of Appeal have been trying to determine ownership of the animals and then to divvy up the farmer’s herd so that the lady gets the cows or the value of the cows she says she owns. The problems in the case are complex. Unfortunately, given the numerous delays already in the case, which has been running since 2012, and the probability that there will be more delays, the cows themselves may be rendered long before a court decision is.
The case began with the ending of a relationship between Allan Anderson, in his mid-60s, and his lady, Chrystal Cottyn, in her late 30s. According to a decision rendered by the Court of Appeal, Anderson lived a double life in two Manitoba towns — part of the year on his farm in The Pas, the rest of the year with Ms. Cottyn in Minitonas. When in Minitonas, the court said, he tended his cattle. Sometimes they grazed on a community pasture, sometimes on a farm owned by Ms. Cottyn. The arrangement lasted a few years during which time she put her brand on the cows. When the relationship ended in discord, Anderson took the entire herd back to his farm but continued to allow it to graze in summer on the community pasture.
Ms. Cottyn sought compensation when the relationship ended. She saw herself in the position of a common law spouse — a tricky point given that Anderson already had and, as far as can be ascertained, still has another — his wife. Ms. Cottyn asked for an accounting and wanted her cows back. The case deepens here.
Anderson, for his part, says he has no obligations under Manitoba’s Family Property Act to account for the cows. There is a separate action to determine whether a common law relationship did exist under the Act.
A motion judge granted an interim order under the Family Property Act on the basis that, even if there was no common law relationship, Ms. Cottyn is entitled to her cows, their calves, and to an accounting for them. An order for the accounting was made against the manager of the community pasture, though no notice of the order was provided to him, the Court of Appeal noted.
Before Ms. Cottyn could fetch her cattle, Anderson moved them off the community pasture.
The Court of Appeal has stayed the order of the motion judge, saying Anderson should not have transferred property (removed cattle from community pasture) given the dispute over ownership. However, division of property or the cattle themselves is not the issue. The Court of Appeal prefers that, if it is proven the cows and calves do indeed belonged to Ms. Cottyn, that she be provided with compensation — the cows and calves or money.
“If the (Family Property) Act applies to the parties’ relationship, the issue will become one simply of an equalization payment. Division of the cattle herd is immaterial.” Taking the case down the path of what amounts to a division of the actual herd thus amounts a bum steer, the court ruled.
The stakes in the case are really not that large. Counsel for Ms. Cottyn suggests the cows may be worth $1,000 each and that their calves may be worth between $700 and $900 each. One suspects that legal fees will far exceed the value of the cattle. A cash cow this case is not.