Summer 2015 case law round up

There have been two child abduction cases of note in the higher courts over the summer, both concerned, in part at least, with objections by children to the making of return orders under the Hague Convention:

High Court

My print out of the High Court (Family Division) judgment in Re F (Abduction: Acquiescence: Child’s Objection) [2015] EWHC 2045 (Fam) runs to 35 pages. I will try and explain it in a much more concise manner below.

The case was about 4 children aged between 13 and 9. Their parents were separated. Up until December 2014 the children lived with their mother in Australia. With her agreement, the children spent their Australian summer holidays in the UK with their father. They were due to return to Australia on 23 January 2015. They did not; the father pre-empting this by, ahead of this date, informing the mother that they could not be returning to Australia on the basis that they wishes to remain.

It was this, the suggestion that the children did not wish to return to Australia, that was central to the determination of this case as the father accepted that his retention of the children in the UK was wrongful, as defined by the Hague Convention.

Given all of this, the issue for the Court was whether the mother acquiesced to the retention of the children in the UK or whether, failing that, if the children objected in a legal sense to their return to Australia, whether the Court should, in the exercise of its discretion, go behind the raison d’etre of the Hague Convention and not order a return of the children because of that.

The Court quickly rejected the suggestion that the mother had acquiesced in the wrongful retention of the children: see paragraph 99 of the judgment. The reasoning for this, set out at paragraphs 87 to 98 draws heavily on the “power imbalance” between the parents arising out of the father’s prior financial support to the mother and children in Australia. Because the father controlled the purse strings, the Court decided that the mother had no alternative to return to the UK but that her actions in doing so could not be regarded as retrospective consent to the wrongful retention.

Recognizing that the case would turn on the issue of whether the children’s “objection” to return amounted to an objection as a matter of law, the judge met with the children prior to giving judgment: see the judgment at paragraphs 60 to 65. See also paragraphs 77 to 81 for the circumstances in which this may occur.

In terms of the Court’s approach to the objections raised by each child to their return to Australia between paragraphs 108 and 115, the Court concluded that none of the children objected, in a legal sense, to returning to Australia; their preference may have been to remain in the UK for the reasons given by them in the evidence before the Court but this did not amount to an objection. Owing to this finding, the Court did not have to decide whether to exercise the discretion it had as to whether, if valid objections had been shown (which they had not), the return of the children should not take place – despite the fact that the father accepted that a wrongful retention had occurred.

In concluding at paragraph 124, the Court found that the father ought to have adopted the “honourable approach” to making an application to the Australian family court to relocate the children to the UK. He did not and in consequence the Court ordered the summary return of all of the children to Australia.

Court of Appeal

Again, there has been only one case of note in the Court of Appeal this summer, that of Re K (1980 Hague Convention) (Lithuania) [2015] EWCA Civ 720. The case was concerned with Lithuanian parents. The mother was appealing against an initial decision made by a High Court judge to require her 11-year old daughter to return to Lithuania under the Hague Convention. The mother accepted that she had wrongfully retained the child in the UK but argued that a return should not occur because the child objected and because there was a grave risk of physical/psychological harm or that the child, if returned, would be placed in an intolerable situation. The father, who resisted return, accepted that the child objected to returning to Lithuania but that, in the exercise of its discretion in this situation, the judge still ought to have ordered return – as the judge did in the High Court. The High Court judge rejected the argument that the child would be at risk of harm or would be placed in an intolerable situation if returned (paragraph 36 of judgment) and concluded that the child’s objection to return was not “determinative” (paragraph 35).

The Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s decision to order the return of the child, rejecting all challenges brought against the original decision, noting that the judge, Hogg J, had “…enormous experience of Hague abduction cases…” (paragraph 39). The Court of Appeal rejected any suggestion that the High Court judge had made up her mind prematurely or approached the evidence selectively (paragraph 42). The Court concluded that the decision made was one that was reasonably open to the original judge (paragraph 45) and that her concerns about the evidence of the CAFCASS officer – the only person to give evidence at the original trial – were open to her also (paragraph 46). Perhaps the point of more general interest is the approach adopted to the suggestion that the child, in objecting to return, was influenced in that regard by the mother. At paragraph 49 the Court of Appeal, remarking on the approach of the initial judge in this regard, said:

It is certainly correct to say that the question of influence weighed heavily in the judge’s mind. She was bound to consider it because it was relevant to the weight that should be put on [the child]’s views, but it was far from being the only thing she considered. Furthermore, the fact that [the child] had been influenced certainly did not lead her to leave [the child’s] views completely out of account. Instead, she weighed them up critically to see where they took her in deciding whether to order a return.

The Court concluded that the original judge’s conclusion that the child should return to Lithuania despite objecting to this course of action was one that was “undoubtedly” open to the original judge (paragraph 51).

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