The flow of UK higher court parental child abduction cases has become a torrent. There is now a third Court of Appeal decision on the issue so far this year – issued barely a week into February. There have also been a couple of new decisions at High Court level (where all such cases start) since the beginning of January 2015 as well. These can be read here and here for readers who are interested. At the time of writing, of the ten cases decided by the Family Division of the High Court since the beginning of January 2015, two (or 20%) have been parental child abduction cases.
On the face of it, the latest Court of Appeal decision is a surprising one, troubling even. The case concerned a 14 year old boy. His parents separated when he was about 18 months old. Between 2003 and the summer of 2014 the boy lived in Spain with his mother. He would regularly visit his father in the UK. He traveled to the UK for one such visit on 19 July 2014. He did not return to Spain.
Both the High Court and, on appeal, the Court of Appeal found that the child was not returnable to Spain under the Hague Convention. The reason was that the Article 13 exception (child’s objection) applied. This exception is not an absolute one as the courts could, in the exercise of discretion, have returned the child anyway, if the circumstances as a whole warranted it. That did not however happen in this case. The reasons the courts decided as they did turned largely on the individual facts, and the fairly advanced age of the boy, but of note are the words of Lord Justice Davis, alert to the possibility of this decision being seen as perverse, in the second judgment given by the Court:
49. The parents in this case had reached a thoroughly sensible arrangement in the English family court proceedings, embodied in a consent order made on 6 May 2003. Their arrangements with regard to E thereafter had been operated by reference to that consent order. When the mother put E on a plane at Madrid in July 2013 for his usual summer holiday with his father in England, she naturally would have expected him to return a few weeks later in accordance with the consent order and the agreed arrangements. E would likewise at that time have expected to return. But this did not happen. Further, the English court has refused to order his return. Imagine her feelings.
50. One surely has to have some concern about the wider potential implications of such an outcome. If there is to be a perception that children may not be returned, even after a short visit to a parent in England and even after prompt application made, parents may be reluctant even to agree the sensible kind of consent order made in this case in circumstances where consent orders are to be encouraged. Or parents may become increasingly reluctant to abide by the terms of such a consent order. Would the mother have put E on the plane at Madrid had she thought this might happen? She would not.
52. The position then is that each such case is fact and circumstance specific. That gives flexibility, in a context calling for flexibility, even if it comes at the cost of certainty. In my view, the judge was, in this case on the evidence before him, entitled to make the findings that he made and to evaluate the evidence as he did. He was entitled to give full weight to the report and evidence of the experienced CAFCASS officer. Whilst Mr Williams’ minute dissection of the evidence and of the judgment operated to confirm, to my mind, that the mother had a powerful case to pursue, I think, with all respect, that ultimately his approach imposed far too great a burden of judicial exposition to be required of first instance judgments in such cases (in what, after all, are summary proceedings). At all events, the judge here dealt with all relevant points. He sufficiently spelled out the reasons for his conclusion and for the way in which he exercised his discretion. The appeal court cannot be used as a vehicle for conducting in effect an entire rehearing in such circumstances.