Towards the end of last month I attended the 1 King’s Bench Walk Annual Conference on Child Abduction in London, as I did last year. It lasted most of the day so I am not going to attempt to cover everything.
The conference covered the following areas:
- Habitual residence;
- The 1996 Hague Convention;
- Consent, acquiescence and settlement;
- Article 13b, undertakings and protective measures;
- The voice of the child;
- Talk on behalf of Reunite by Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE;
- Abduction and same-sex parents;
- Finding children and getting them on the plane;
The talk given on behalf of the charity Reunite was by Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE, the UK’s leading child abduction solicitor. Encouragingly she said that, in relation to cases that Reunite had been involved in, they had seen increases in returns to non-Hague countries such as India, Pakistan and Thailand. Far less encouragingly, she reported that the UK’s Legal Aid Agency had denied legal aid to those wishing to effect a return of a child or children from non-Hague jurisdictions due to a lack of merit: the Agency is of the view that such cases are lacking in merit, and therefore not worthy of public funding, because even if a removal or retention can be said to be wrongful, if the country concerned is not going to enforce a return then there is no point in litigating. As Ms Hutchinson was quick to point out, that cannot be right because a parent wronged in this way must be entitled to legal recognition of that fact; the parent may return alone and the absence of a previously-made return order might mean that there is insufficient time to act on that parent’s return to press for a return of the child; and a further reason why the approach raises concern is because Commonwealth countries are more likely to recognize UK court orders. The Legal Aid Agency was also said to be of the view that the correct approach in such cases is to issue proceedings in the country concerned: Japan did not get a mention at this year’s conference but anyone knowing anything about Japan’s family law “system” will recognize that this is bordering on the pointless. Another concern that was aired at the conference and again in relation to the provision of legal aid was that legal aid is not available in “leave to remove” cases: i.e. situations where a parent applies for a court’s permission to take a child abroad – invariably to a non-Hague state – and the other parent objects meaning that a judge must decide. The absence of legal aid means that the potential left behind parent will either have to represent him or herself or pay for representation to counter the proposals being made by the other parent. Ms Hutchinson also reported that Reunite has been “busier than ever” in terms of the role that it plays in mediation, including in relation to disputes not even concerning UK children.
During the lunch break, I spoke to the QC who gave the talk on mediation. In his talk, he drew attention to an article written by the former Designated Family Judge for London, John Altman. Judge Altman was present at the conference. The article concerns the innovation of “early neutral evaluation” as a means of resolving disputes involving children; it is distinct from arbitration although the QC noted that arbitration is now becoming available in children cases as well; he therefore pre-empted the piece on arbitration that featured as the immediately previous post on this blog.
By far the most interesting part of the day was the talk given by the High Court’s “Tipstaff”, Richard Cheesley, the “Bruce Willis” of the family law system. The Tipstaff is the High Court’s enforcement officer. Most of the Tipstaff’s work arises out of Family Division cases. His role includes executing warrants for arrest and committal to prison in relation to defaulting parents and executing location orders, collection orders and passport seizure orders in relation to children. The role of Tipstaff goes back, as the title suggests, a long way. He is the only person who can effect at arrest within the precincts of the High Court, is the Lord Chancellor’s constable and has the power to commandeer the front car of any train in England and Wales; he said that he has been in his position since the early 1990s and has not had to utilise that power. On a more serious note he spoke of the fact that the UK’s border alert system to prevent abductions taking place is nowhere near as stringent as the checks made on people coming in; that is clearly something that cannot stand.
This is an annual conference and the profits from it go to the Reunite International charity. Please see here for a conference that is to focus more on the impact – parental and child – of international parental child abduction; it is to take place in New York later this month. I was hoping to be able to attend it but that is not going to happen unfortunately.