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Family Law

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30 NOV 2015

AT v SS (No 2) [2015] EWHC 3328 (Fam)

AT v SS (No 2) [2015] EWHC 3328 (Fam)

(Family Division, MacDonald J, 18 November 2015)

Abduction – Return order – Mother sought variation to permit delay of 2 months for a return of the child

The mother’s application to vary the return order to permit a 2-month delay in the child being returned to Holland was refused.

In the decision of AT v SS [2015] EWHC 2703 (Fam), a return order was made pursuant to Art 12 of the Hague Convention in respect of the 5-year-old child. The mother had been found to have wrongfully removed the child from Holland.

Throughout the proceedings it was the mother’s contention that if a return order were granted she would not accompany the child back to Holland and would remain in the UK. At the time of the final hearing the mother was 7 months pregnant. The return order was granted and a deadline was set for the child’s return to Holland. A short delay was required due to the need for the Dutch authorities to arrange an interim foster or kinship care placement.

Prior to the return date the mother contacted the court stating that she now wished to return to Holland with the child and she sought an order to vary the order to permit a 2-month delay for the return. The mother had since given birth via caesarean section and she claimed she was unable to travel until that time.

The mother’s application was dismissed. Although the mother’s position was difficult it was not, within the context of the imperative need for expedition under the Hague Convention and the concomitant legal principles, sufficient reason to vary the return order to provide for a further 2-month delay in the return of the child to the jurisdiction of the Netherlands. Furthermore, the mother had failed to provide cogent evidence that she was unable to travel for at least 2 months.

The Dutch courts were now seised of the matter and having ordered the return of the child to the jurisdiction of Holland the English court had to take care not to in any way usurp, or to be thought to be usurping the functions of the court of the child’s habitual residence by retaining him in this jurisdiction any longer than was necessary to effect his safe return to Holland.

There was a disparity in the mother’s evidence of when she decided to return to Holland and the efforts she made to arrange to travel there. Within this context, it had to be borne in mind that the mother had attempted to frustrate the Dutch court process over a significant period of time and her abduction of the child from Holland gave every impression of being a barefaced and cynical abduction designed specifically to avoid the provisions imposed by the Dutch court to ensure a continuing relationship between the child and his father.



This judgment was delivered in private. The Judge has given permission for this annonymised version of the judgment (and any of the facts and matters contained in it) to be published on condition always that the names and the current addresses of the parties and the children must not be published. For the avoidance of doubt, the strict prohibition on publishing the names and current addresses of the parties and the children will continue to apply where that information has been obtained by using the contents of this judgment to discover information already in the public domain. All persons, including representatives of the media, must ensure that these conditions are strictly complied with. Failure to do so will be a contempt of court.

Case No: FD15P00102

Neutral Citation Number: [2015] EWHC 3328 (Fam)
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
FAMILY DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 18/11/2015

Before:
THE HONOURABLE MR JUSTICE MACDONALD

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Between:
AT
Applicant

- and -

SS(No 2)
Respondent

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Ms Mehvish Chaudry (instructed by Brethertons) for the Applicant
Mr Main-Thompson (instructed by Duncan Lewis) for the Respondent

Hearing dates: 13 November 2015

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Judgment


Mr Justice MacDonald:

INTRODUCTION


[1]  On 29 September 2015 I made a return order pursuant to Art 12 of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (hereafter ‘the Convention’) in respect of a child, S. S is now aged 5 years old. My reasons for making the order are set out in my judgment of that date, the neutral citation for which is [2015] EWHC 2703 (Fam). This judgment should be read with my previous judgment.

[2]  Within my judgment of 29 September I recorded the stated intention of S’s mother, SS, articulated during the final hearing of this matter on 11 September 2015, not to return with S to Holland in the event I made a return order. That remained the position of the mother as at the date of my first judgment.

[3]  By reason of the fact that the return of S to Holland was to take place without his being accompanied by his primary carer, I permitted what I described in my first judgment as “a short delay” in the implementation of the return order whilst the necessary arrangements are made for the return of S to, and the reception of S in Holland.

[4]  The arrangements to which I made reference included the need to notify the Dutch authorities of the decision of this court, the need for an interim foster care or kinship placement to be identified and the need for arrangements to be made for transporting S to the Netherlands in the event that the mother persisted in her stated intention not to accompany her child to that jurisdiction. Within this context, I ultimately approved a consent order which provides for the return of S to Holland no later than 13 November 2015.

[5]  At the beginning of last week I was informed by a letter from the solicitors acting on behalf of the mother that she had now decided that she did wish to return to Holland with S. The mother now applies to vary the return order I made on 29 September 2015 to allow for a further two month delay in the return of S to allow the mother to accompany him to Holland.

BACKGROUND

[6]  As noted in my first judgment, the mother was, as at the hearing on 11 September, heavily pregnant. Within this context, the mother appears to have notified her own solicitors of her change of heart regarding return to Holland with S on 5 October 2015. On 6 October 2015 the mother’s solicitors wrote to the father’s solicitors informing them that the mother would wish to travel with S to Holland in the week commencing on 12 October, before the birth of her expected child.

[7]  However, the mother asserts that on 7 October, and in response to her enquiring whether it was safe to fly prior to her giving birth, she was advised by her general practitioner that not all airlines would allow her to travel heavily pregnant and that she should she wait until after the birth to fly to Holland.

[8]  It is important to note that the recollection of the mother’s GP appears to be somewhat at odds with the mother’s account in several respects. In a letter dated 12 November the GP relates that the mother stated on 7 October that she was planning to fly to the Netherlands on 13 November. This is contrary to what the solicitors for the father had been told regarding an intended return in the week commencing 12 October. Further, the GP makes clear that she advised the mother against this course of action because her estimated delivery date was 4 November and, accordingly, that she should await the outcome of the birth before deciding whether to fly on 13 November 2015. It is clear that the advice of the GP was predicated on the mother giving an intended date of travel that post dated her estimated date of delivery. At no point does the GP state that she informed the mother on 7 October that she should not travel to Holland ahead of her estimated date of delivery, either because of restrictions put in place by some airlines or because it was unsafe for her and her unborn child to travel per se.

[9]  Further, even if the mother’s contention regarding the advice she received from her GP is accurate, there is no evidence of the mother checking with airlines on 7 October whether they would permit her to travel. In addition, air travel is not the only means of reaching Holland from the United Kingdom. There is no evidence that the mother looked at alternative forms of travel, although the mother now states that she did not think about the option of travelling to Holland by ferry.

[10]  The mother also asserts that, some days subsequent to the appointment with her GP, her midwife told her that she should not travel until after the birth. There is no evidence before the court to corroborate that assertion.

[11]  Nearly a month after the mother indicated that she would be prepared to travel to Holland with S, on 3 November 2015 the mother’s general practitioner provided a letter which confirmed that the mother “is not able to travel soon because she is 39 weeks pregnant”. The letter further stated that the midwife had advised against travelling for at least three weeks after the delivery “assuming that she has a smooth trouble free birth process”.

[12]  On 7 November the mother gave birth to her new child. That birth, I am told, was not “smooth and trouble free” and had to be achieved by way of a caesarean section. The mother was discharged from hospital on 9 November 2015.

[13]  The mother’s application to vary the terms of the return order first came before me on 9 November 2015. At that hearing the mother contended through counsel that, by reason of the circumstances of the birth of S’s sibling and notwithstanding her change of heart with respect to accompanying S on his return to Holland, she would not be in a position to do so until at least 28 November 2015.

[14]  I pause to note that, beyond the letter from her GP dated 3 November 2015, mother adduced no medical evidence at the hearing on 9 November to substantiate that assertion, either by way of her primary medical records or by way of a report from the medical staff responsible for her health and the health of the new born baby. In addition to the absence of medical evidence to underpin the mother’s submission that she and her newborn child would not be fit to travel with S until the end of the November, the mother also raised an issue concerning the passport that will be required for the mother’s newborn child to travel to Holland. As related in my first judgment, the mother shares joint Dutch and Afghani nationality. The father of her new child is English. Within this context, both the nationality of the new child and the mechanism and timescales for obtaining a passport for that child remained to be confirmed as at the hearing on 9 November. Finally, it was only on the morning of 9 November that confirmation was received from the Dutch authorities as to the arrangement for transporting S to the Netherlands and receiving him into foster care in the event that the mother did not travel with him. That document had yet to be translated.

[15]  Accordingly, on 9 November 2015 I adjourned the matter until Friday 13 November 2015 to allow the translation of the document received that day from the Dutch authorities setting out the arrangement for transporting S to the Netherlands and receiving him into foster care and to permit the mother to file and serve medical evidence in support of her application together with evidence of the process and timescales of applying for a passport for her new child.

[16]  Notwithstanding this adjournment, the mother’s application remains characterised by a complete paucity of medical evidence demonstrating that she requires a further period of time to recover, which period, the mother now states, is two months, before being well enough to travel to Holland with S. As well as there continuing to be no medical evidence to support the assertion that the mother is unable to travel with S for a further two months per se, there is no medical evidence before the court dealing with the comparative efficacy of different modes of travel and whether, for example, the mother might be able to take a ferry to Holland with S before she would be fit to fly back to that jurisdiction.

[17]  In relation to the issue of a passport for her new child, the mother contends that the child is entitled to a British passport but that she is unable to apply for such a passport until the birth of the child is registered on 23 November 2015. Thereafter a passport application would take a number of weeks to process.

[18]  In relation to the proposals advanced by the Dutch authorities for the collection of S and his placement in foster care in Holland pending the Dutch court’s determining his welfare, the translated information from Holland provides as follows:a.The Dutch Childcare and Protection Board (CCPB) has obtained the equivalent of a 12 month care order which gives the CCPB authority to place S in foster care if her returns to the jurisdiction of Holland without his mother;b.A further hearing in the Dutch proceedings will take place on 23 November 2015;c.The Dutch social worker for S will arrive in England on 17 November 2015 to collect S and to return him to foster care in Holland.

[19]  As I have already noted, at this adjourned hearing the mother now asserts that she will not be in a position to accompany S to Holland for a further two months and seeks a variation of the return order accordingly. The father opposes the mother’s application and invites me to vary the return order only insofar as extending the time for return to 17 November to accommodate the arrangements put in place, and now confirmed by the Dutch authorities.

THE LAW

[20]  Art 12 of the 1980 Hague Convention provides, inter alia, as follows with respect to the return of an abducted child:

“Where a child has been wrongfully removed or retained in terms of Article 3 and, at the date of the commencement of the proceedings before the judicial or administrative authority of the Contracting State where the child is, a period of less than one year has elapsed from the date of the wrongful removal or retention, the authority concerned shall order the return of the child forthwith.”

[21]  Art 12 makes clear that an order for the return of the child must be an order that child be returned of the child ‘forthwith’ (the wording of Art 12 making it clear that it is the return rather than the order that must be forthwith). This position is consistent with Art 1 of the Convention, which makes clear that the object of the Convention is to secure the prompt return of children wrongfully removed or retained in any Contracting State. Within this context, Art 2 of the Convention mandates that Contracting States shall take all appropriate measures to secure the objects of the Convention and, for this purpose, shall use the most expeditious procedures available (see Re M (Abduction: Zimbabwe) [2007] 3 WLR 975, [2008] 1 FLR 251 at [42]).

[22]  In R v K (Abduction: Return Order) [2010] 1 FLR 1456 Ryder J (as he then was) considered the power of the court to stay or suspend a return order pending the occurrence of a specified event (in that case a decision by the Polish court on the abducting parent’s application for interim permission to remove the child from Poland). The court held that there is jurisdiction to implement an order for return forthwith in a manner which provides for the identification and implementation of identified practical steps over a limited period of time prior to the return.

[23]  As to the time scales for implementing an order for return forthwith in a manner which provides for the identification and implementation of identified practical steps over a limited period of time prior to the return, in Re M (Abduction: Undertakings) [1995] 1 FLR 1021 Butler-Sloss LJ (as she then was) observed as follows in relation to the timescales that might be contemplated:

“It is perhaps helpful to remind those engaged in Hague Convention applications about the position of undertakings or conditions attached to an Art 12 order to return. Such requirements are to make the return of the children easier and to provide for their necessities, such as a roof over the head, adequate maintenance, etc, until, and only until, the court of habitual residence can become seized of the proceedings brought in that jurisdiction. In Re C (A Minor) (Abduction) [1989] 1 FLR 403, Lord Donaldson MR said at p 413: ‘Save in an exceptional case, our concern, i.e. the concern of these courts, should be limited to giving the child the maximum possible protection until the courts of the other country, Australia in this case, can resume their normal role in relation to the child.' This court must be careful not in any way to usurp or to be thought to usurp the functions of the court of habitual residence. Equally, the requirements made in this country must not be so elaborate that their implementation might become bogged down in protracted hearings and investigations, as was suggested by Sir Thomas Bingham MR in Re M (A Minor) (Child Abduction) (above) at p 397. Undertakings have their place in the arrangements designed to smooth the return of and to protect the child for the limited period before the foreign court takes over, but they must not be used by parties to try to clog or fetter, or, in particular, to delay the enforcement of a paramount decision to return the child. It would be helpful if realistic time-limits for the compliance with the undertakings were included in the orders to return the child, but in the absence of a specified time, clearly the court would consider a reasonable time and not allow the case to drag on with repeated applications to the court.”

[24]  Finally, it is also of note that a failure by national authorities to take the measures set out in the Hague Convention to secure the return of the child under those provisions (including the provision for return forthwith under Art 12(1)) can amount to a breach of the Art 8 right to respect for family life of the non-abducting parent (see Ignaccolo Zenide v Romania (2001) 31 EHRR 7 at [95] and Gil and Aui v Spain (Application No 56673/00) [2005] 1 FLR 190 at [59]-[63]).

DISCUSSION

[25]  On the morning of 13 November 2015 I dismissed the mother’s application to vary the return order to provide for a further delay of two months before S is returned to the jurisdiction of Holland. I varied that order only to the extent that I directed that S shall be returned to the jurisdiction of Holland by 11.59pm on 17 November 2015. I now set out my reasons for that decision as follows.

[26]  I of course accept that the mother’s current position is a difficult one. She has only recently given birth to her newborn child and that birth was not easy. However, in my judgment the mother’s current position is not, within the context of the imperative need for expedition under the 1980 Convention and the concomitant legal principles outlined above, sufficient reason to vary the return order to provide for a further two month delay in the return of S to the jurisdiction of the Netherlands.

[27]  First, within the foregoing legal context, and given the need to notify the Dutch authorities of the decision of this court, the need for an interim foster care or kinship placement to be identified and the need for arrangements to be made for transporting S to the Netherlands in circumstances where the mother persisted in her stated intention not to accompany her child to that jurisdiction, in this case and notwithstanding that I was satisfied that S should be returned forthwith to his country of habitual residence, I was prepared to permit a period of time that provided for the identification and implementation of required practical steps over a limited period of time prior to the return of S to Holland. Each of those steps has now been taken and S is now able to return safely to the jurisdiction of Holland unaccompanied by his Mother on 17 November 2015. In the circumstances, the purpose for which I delayed the implementation of the return order, namely the identification and implementation of identified practical steps necessary to effect the return of S, has been met.

[28]  Second, I must also have regard generally to the strong imperative for expedition contained within the 1980 Convention. Once the court is satisfied that the return of a child to the jurisdiction of his or her habitual residence is merited the law is clear in what it demands. Whilst a reasonable period of time between the making of a return order and the return of the child is permitted for the purpose of identifying and implementing practical steps necessary to effect the safe return of the child, it is plain that that ‘reasonable period’ is strictly limited to that which is necessary to achieve that end. If the demands of the Convention are to be met the court must guard against attempts to expand any necessary delay beyond that which is reasonably required to put in place the practical steps required to effect the return. Within this context, any additional delay based on the mother’s particular circumstances would not fall within the very narrow scope of circumstances that permit a delay in the return of the child (R v K (Abduction: Return Order) [2010] 1 FLR 1456).

[29]  Third, the mother has in any event my judgment failed to produce cogent evidence that she is unable able to travel with S for a period of two months. Whilst, as a matter of common sense, I accept that travel at this point in time, very close to a difficult birth and with a newborn baby and a young son, would not be at all easy, for the court to even begin to be satisfied that the mother’s circumstances justified a variation to the return order that would run contrary to the spirit of the 1980 Convention, the court would need cogent evidence demonstrating that her circumstances, and specifically her inability to travel to Holland by any means, are as she claims. Despite giving the mother a further opportunity to secure it, such evidence has still not been forthcoming.

[30]  Fourth, whilst I accept that, for the reasons set out in my first judgment, for S to be returned to Holland without his mother is not ideal and may well result in short term emotional and psychological upset for S, my decision to return S to Holland was reached within the context of the mother making clear she would not travel with S. In the circumstances, and within the context of the Dutch authorities being as competent as their English counterparts in safeguarding the welfare of S, I have already concluded that, subject to confirmation of the arrangements, it is appropriate for S to be returned to Holland without his mother if necessary.

[31]  Fifth, it is plain that the Dutch courts are now seised of this matter. A care order authorising the reception of S into foster care has been made in Holland and the matter is to return before the Dutch court on 23 November 2015. In these circumstances, having ordered the return of S to the jurisdiction of Holland this court must take care not to in any way to usurp, or to be thought to be usurping the functions of the court of S’s habitual residence by retaining him in this jurisdiction any longer than is necessary to effect his safe return to Holland.

[32]  Finally, whilst not determinative of my decision, I also bear in mind that it is far from clear why the mother did not return to the Netherlands at the point in early October when she decided to accompany S on his return to Holland. I am concerned about the disparity between the advice the mother claims she was given by her GP at this time and the account of the GP in this regard. There is also no satisfactory explanation why the mother did not, upon being told that flying might not be possible, consider the alternative of travel by road and sea. Within this context, I bear in mind the account set out in my previous judgment of the mother’s efforts to frustrate the Dutch court process over a significant period of time and my finding that her abduction of S from Holland gave every impression of being a barefaced and cynical abduction designed specifically to avoid the provisions imposed by the Dutch court to ensure a continuing relationship between S and his father.

CONCLUSION

[33]  In the circumstances, and for the reasons set out above, I am satisfied that I must dismiss the mother’s application to vary the return order of 29 September 2015. Having now had confirmation of the arrangements put in place by the Dutch authorities to transport S to Holland and place him in foster care I shall vary that order only to the extent that I direct that S shall be returned to the jurisdiction of Holland by 11.59pm on 17 November 2015.

[34]  That is my judgment.

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