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Ambassador, with these Brussels 2 applications you are really spoiling us

The potential impact of the High Court decision in Re T (A Child Article 15 of BR2) 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/521.html

An interesting  (if somewhat dry) one, brought about by the intervention of the Slovak authorities in care proceedings in England.

It seems (and one can understand why when one looks at their recent experiences) that the Slovak authorities aren’t that taken with the way care proceedings concerning their citizens are being conducted in England.

In this case, both parents were Slovak, although living in England, and the child had been conceived in Slovakia. In fact, the Slovak authorities had had the mother in care in a children’s home,  become aware that the mother was pregnant and sought to place her in another children’s home that had special provision for underage mothers.

The mother ran away and came to England.

3. Shortly beforehand on 19 May 2008 a court in Michalovce, Slovakia ordered that the mother be placed in a crisis centre following certain allegations by her against her stepfather and mother. In July 2008 the relationship between the mother and father began. The mother was then aged 13, the father 16. On 14 January 2009 the Michalovce District Court made an order placing the mother in the children’s home in that city.

In July 2011 the mother fell pregnant and on 30 November 2011 the Michalovce District Court ordered that the mother be transferred to the children’s home in Kosice which had a special unit for underage mothers. It was from there on 29 February 2012 that the mother ran away with the father and travelled to this country which she entered on false papers. The mother and father went to the town where her family were living, and it was there on 22 April 2012 that T was born.

4. It was not only on account of the mother’s young age that the local authority was concerned for the newly born infant. Almost from the moment of their arrival here in 2008 protective measures had been taken in relation to the mother’s siblings and this led to all or some of them being made the subject of care orders in 2010. I have not been given the details. At all events the local authority undertook a core assessment immediately following T’s birth and only allowed the mother to take him to her own mother’s home on discharge from hospital on 4 May 2012 on the basis that the mother signed a “contract of expectations”. Unfortunately as a result of various intra-familial disputes the placement broke down and ultimately on 18 May 2012 the mother and T moved to a Mother and Baby Unit for a 12 week period of assessment pursuant to an agreement made under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

However, on 23 May 2012 the mother left the unit leaving the baby behind, and although she returned the following day she left again finally on 27 May 2012, complaining that the place was like a prison. Care proceedings commenced in England, and by the time of this application had reached the point where all assessments were completed, and the recommendation of the Local Authority in England, and the Guardian was that the child should be adopted.

The Slovakian authorities sought the return of the mother (and also later the child) to their country, so that decisions could be made in Slovakia relating to them both, and made an application under Article 15 of Brussels 2 On 19 July 2012 the Director of the children’s home in Kosice wrote to the local authority stating “our interest is that the mother be returned to the children’s home, as she is entrusted to our care by the courts”. Later the authorities in Slovakia expanded this to seek the return of T also.

On 27 September 2012 the children’s home informed the Slovakian Central Office of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (which I take to be the relevant government Ministry) of the circumstances of the case and on 3 October 2012 the Slovakian Central Authority received a report from the Ministry about the mother and T. The Slovakian Central Authority contacted the Central Authority (ICACU) here on 5 October 2012. On 18 January 2013 a lengthy letter entitled “Intervention of the Slovak Central Authority” was received by the court authored by Andrea Cisarova. This has been supplemented by two further detailed submissions dated 21 February 2013 and 8 March 2013.

In these documents the Slovakian Central Authority forcefully argues that under EU law, equally applicable in Slovakia and this country, the mother and T are both habitually resident in Slovakia; the mother is the subject of an order which is entitled to recognition and enforcement here; and that this is a case where a request should be made by this court under article 15 of Regulation Brussels II Revised[1] for a transfer to the Slovakian courts of the proceedings concerning T.

Like most lawyers who don’t specialise in international law, I hear the phrase “Brussels II” and have to suppress a shudder. It normally means that things are going to get fearfully complex.

In this case, what it meant was that the Slovak authorities were asking the English Court to relinquish the case over to them. The mother was agreeing to the order of the Slovak courts that she return and live in the children’s home.

Article 15 provides

9. “Transfer to a court better placed to hear the case

1. By way of exception, the courts of a Member State having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter may, if they consider that a court of another Member State, with which the child has a particular connection, would be better placed to hear the case, or a specific part thereof, and where this is in the best interests of the child:

(a) stay the case or the part thereof in question and invite the parties to introduce a request before the court of that other Member State … ; or

(b) request a court of another Member State to assume jurisdiction …

2. Paragraph 1 shall apply: (a) upon application from a party; or (b) of the court’s own motion; or (c) upon application from a court of another Member State with which the child has a particular connection, in accordance with paragraph

3. A transfer made of the court’s own motion or by application of a court of another Member State must be accepted by at least one of the parties.

3. The child shall be considered to have a particular connection to a Member State as mentioned in paragraph 1, if that Member State:

(a) has become the habitual residence of the child after the court referred to in paragraph 1 was seised; or

(b) is the former habitual residence of the child; or

(c) is the place of the child’s nationality; or

(d) is the habitual residence of a holder of parental responsibility; or

(e) is the place where property of the child is located and the case concerns measures for the protection of the child relating to the administration, conservation or disposal of this property.

4. The court of the Member State having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter shall set a time limit by which the courts of that other Member State shall be seised in accordance with paragraph 1. If the courts are not seised by that time, the court which has been seised shall continue to exercise jurisdiction in accordance with Articles 8 to 14.

5. The courts of that other Member State may, where due to the specific circumstances of the case, this is in the best interests of the child, accept jurisdiction within six weeks of their seisure in accordance with paragraph 1(a) or 1(b). In this case, the court first seised shall decline jurisdiction. Otherwise, the court first seised shall continue to exercise jurisdiction in accordance with Articles 8 to 14.

6. The courts shall cooperate for the purposes of this Article, either directly or through the central authorities designated pursuant to Article 53.”

Mr Justice Mostyn, who heard this case, picked over the existing sole authority in English law on article 15 [AB v JLB [2008] EWHC 2965 (Fam) [2009] 1 FLR 517 ]   and drew from it the three questions that had to be answered by the Court who were dealing with the application

10. i) First, it must determine whether the child has, within the meaning of Article 15(3), “a particular connection” with the relevant other member State – here, the United Kingdom. Given the various matters set out in Article 15(3) as bearing on this question, this is, in essence, a simple question of fact. For example, is the other Member State the former habitual residence of the child (see Article 15(3)(b)) or the place of the child’s nationality (see Article 15(3)(c))?

ii) Secondly, it must determine whether the court of that other Member State “would be better placed to hear the case, or a specific part thereof”. This involves an exercise in evaluation, to be undertaken in the light of all the circumstances of the particular case.

iii) Thirdly, it must determine if a transfer to the other court “is in the best interests of the child.” This again involves an evaluation undertaken in the light of all the circumstances of the particular child.”

11. In paragraph 36 Munby J pointed out that even if affirmative answers were given to all of the three questions there remains a discretion whether or not to request a transfer. However he observed that if all the questions were answered affirmatively it was difficult to envisage circumstances where it would nonetheless be appropriate not to transfer the case.

He then went on to consider the application of article 15 to care cases and distilled the following principles

24. ) Article 15 applies to public law as well as private law proceedings.

ii) As a precondition the court must be satisfied within the meaning of Article 15(3), that the child has “a particular connection” with the relevant other member state.

iii) The applicant must satisfy this court that the other court would be better placed to hear the case (or a specific part thereof). In making this evaluation the applicant must show that the other court is clearly the more appropriate forum.

iv) In assessing the appropriateness of each forum, the court must discern the forum with which the case has the more real and substantial connection in terms of convenience, expense and availability of witnesses.

v) If the court were to conclude that the other forum was clearly more appropriate, it should issue the transfer request and grant a stay unless other more potent factors were to drive the opposite result.

vi) In the exercise to be conducted at (iii) – (v), the best interests of the child is an important, but not the paramount, consideration.

vii) In making the best interests analysis at (vi) the court will not embark on a profound investigation of the child’s situation and upbringing but will dwell in an attenuated inquiry upon the sort of considerations which come into play when deciding upon the most appropriate forum.

What was particularly interesting in this case was that the Slovak approach was for mother and child to live together, albeit in a children’s home and given a long process of assessment and testing and support with a view to keeping the family together long-term, whereas the approach of the English professionals was that the mother could not meet his needs and keep him safe and that adoption was the only viable plan.

Thus a transfer to a different jurisdiction was not merely having a different Court with different laws determine the case, but a profoundly different outcome for the child. The direction of travel for either jurisdiction was very clearly laid out.

The High Court looked at the arguments put forward by both parties

31. The Slovakian Central Authority, supported by the parents, argues for a transfer for the following reasons:

i) Both parents and the child are Slovakian citizens. The habitual residence of the mother is Slovakia. The child’s habitual residence is, she argues, Slovakia.

ii) The parents only speak Slovakian. Any proceedings in Slovakia will be in their own language. Similarly any further assessments in Slovakia would be undertaken in their own language.

iii) The mother has agreed to return to Slovakia and to the children’s home to which she has been committed by a court order

iv) T has not been put in a permanent placement and a further move for him will have to take place in any event.

32. The Slovakian Central Authority has outlined the plan for the mother and T were they to return to their native country. They will be placed in the children’s home in Kosice where they will live in a small community with at most four other under-age mothers with their children. They will be cared for 24 hours a day by six child care professionals who will help them to provide care for their minor children. In this way the minor mothers learn to care for their children to create emotional bonds and to achieve parental skills. Psychological and special pedagogical care will be provided and the minor mother will have the opportunity of completing her education.

33. Of course it is accepted by all that this process is fundamentally one of assessment and that were a transfer to be made the court in Slovakia would have to decide whether reunification was possible in the long-term or whether T would have to be permanently placed with alternative parents.

34. In my opinion the plan I have outlined above best promotes the possibility of preserving this child’s Slovakian and Roma heritage. In his skeleton argument counsel for the child stated that “whilst of course there are additional welfare factors because of T’s Slovakian heritage, fundamentally he is a child like any other”. This struck me as a profoundly culture-blind statement. I do regard the promotion of this child’s heritage as being of great importance and I do not consider that the case of either the local authority or the Guardian has sufficient regard to that factor.

35. Additionally, I would observe that it is doubtful that either of these parents or indeed the child is lawfully present in this country under the terms of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006 S.I. 2006 No. 1003.

36. Leading Counsel for the local authority argues that the Slovakian plan would not be in the child’s best interests because it represents but a single inflexible option. This was the central part of his argument and so in fairness to him I set out the relevant paragraphs of his skeleton (as modified in oral submissions) in full:

The transfer of jurisdiction proposal carries with it only one plan, only one option.

The type of assessment proposed under the Slovak plan has already been tried at the Mother and Baby Unit. The Mother left the unit to be with the Father.

Previously she had run away from the Mother and Baby unit at the Kosice Children’s Home to be with the Father. She has consistently in Rotherham refused offers of accommodation on her own because she wants to live with the Father.

The prospects of her remaining without the Father at the Kosice unit for assessment are not sufficiently good to make it in the Child’s interests to try this because of the damage that will be done to him in the process.

The Child has a good, healthy attachment to his foster carer. He is at the age when he has the opportunity to transfer that attachment to another care-giver. If he is enabled to transfer this attachment to his new permanent carer, the prospects for his emotional wellbeing are good. If he is not able to do this successfully, the risk is that he will shut down emotionally and permanent damage will be done to the future prospects of any successful attachment to any carer.

The Slovakian plan involves the Child being placed with his Mother as his primary carer, albeit with professional supervision.

The observations of contact between the Child and his Mother show that he will be seriously distressed if he is placed in his Mother’s full-time care. Despite her best efforts, she is unable to soothe and calm him. He will often not accept care, such as feeding, from her. If the Mother and the Child are put in this position full-time, the distress caused to the Mother is likely to make her chances of caring successfully for the Child even less.

The Mother herself believes that the best way forward would be for Child to be in foster care initially in Slovakia in order to build up contact with her.

The Child suffers from herpes which flares up from time to time. The stress of leaving his foster carer and being placed in his Mother’s care is likely to cause his herpes to flare up. This will add to the difficulty of caring for him and the stress caused to the Mother. If he needed hospital treatment in Slovakia, the disruption to him and stress will be increased.

The further assessment is, in any event, unnecessary given the assessment work which has been done with the parents already. There is already sufficient information before the Court to establish that the parents cannot offer the Child the care he needs.

It is not in his best interests to take risks with his long term emotional welfare and ability to form attachments to a permanent carer and to cause delay in the final decision-taking for him. The prospects of success for the Mother/ Parents are not sufficiently good to warrant taking those risks.

37. It can be seen that this argument comes very close to the profound best interests enquiry concerning the child’s future care which Lady Hale emphatically said should not happen in Re I. Basically, it is a chauvinistic argument which says that the authorities of the Republic of Slovakia have got it all wrong and that we know better how to deal with the best interests of this Slovakian citizen. I completely disagree with this approach. The analysis of best interests only goes to inform the question of forum and should not descend to some kind of divisive value judgement about the laws and procedures of our European neighbours.

38. It can fairly be said that the local authority witnesses on events in T’s short life are all here speaking of events here and that this militates in favour of this court being the more appropriate forum. However, it is obvious that if this case is transferred to Slovakia there will not be any substantive court case as the parents will surely accept the plan of the Slovakian authorities. Only if that further assessment and attempted reunification fails is there likely to be a contested case in Slovakia; and that case will surely be focusing on the most recent Slovakian assessment and the reasons for its failure rather than historical assessments over here.

39. I conclude that all the requirements of article 15 when read conformably with the principles set out by Wilson J are satisfied in this case and that the transfer request should be issued. The proceedings will be stayed but T will remain where he is under a sequence of interim care orders made administratively until the Slovakian court makes a decision about his interim arrangement. Of course in the event that the Slovakian court declines the request then the matter must be restored to this court for final determination.

And of course, the significant matter there is the Court’s determination that it would be for the Slovakian authorities to determine whether the child could remain with the mother, and that in the event of a dispute on that, and proceedings being issued it would be the Slovak assessment and evidence which would be relevant, and not those matters which had occurred in England. The case was duly transferred to Slovakia – although the child had never spent a day in Slovakia and was not habitually resident there, Mostyn J found that the child had NO habitual residence anywhere, and was thus captured by Article 13.

[It was pretty clear from the judgment that although Mostyn found himself to be bound by the Court of Appeal authority in ZA & Anor v NA [2012] EWCA Civ 1396 that a person or child cannot be habitually resident in a country they had never lived in, he wasn’t of the same opinion, and favoured the dissenting judgment of that authority. This child of course, had been living in England for 11 months by the time of the judgment…]

This is a peculiar one – mother was really giving up her life here to go and live in a restrictive environment in Slovakia in order to keep her child with her, although she had herself fled that environment previously.

So, the question arises – if you are representing parents in care proceedings who are from another jurisdiction [where Brussels II applies], and they would be willing to return to that jurisdiction, is it worth approaching that embassy to see if they would be willing to apply under Article 15 to take over the case?

It will depend very much on the circumstances, but is probably something which needs more consideration than one might normally give it. If the Courts are willing to move the case over when the care plans are so divergent, it may be a way of achieving parent and child being together that is more effective than challenging the making of orders in the English courts.

“To lose on a case once in the Court of Appeal may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose three times on the same case looks like carelessness”

The misadventures of the LA in the case of Re B  (2012)  (the Slovakian grandmother case)

 This is indeed, the third time that the Court of Appeal have heard the case, and on each occasion, the LA have lost. They have had a steadily increased judicial kicking each time that they did so, and the Court of Appeal almost seem to be running the case management of the case. 

The latest instalment is here

 http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed111948

It involves a case where the LA had put forward a plan of adoption for children and rejected a grandmother, who was living in Slovakia. At the very first appeal hearing, the Court of Appeal determined that adoption was not the right plan for the children and that the children should be moved over to Slovakia, although that would require a transition and a build-up of contact.   

That was on 9th November 2011.

 The case came back to the Court of Appeal on 16th November, with the LA seeking amplification and also seeking to introduce some fresh evidence about grandmother (including an allegation that she had attended a meeting with the mother, posing as the mother’s interpreter)

The Court did not think that these fresh allegations were any impediment to the plan, and were gravely disappointed that the LA had not moved on with the transitional plan. They delivered a judicial ‘get on with it or we will take your ICO away from you and run things ourselves’ warning.

It was therefore pretty surprising that the case came back for a third time on 14th December, with the Court of Appeal being asked to decide between three plans for transition, and there having been no increase to contact since the Court of Appeal had decided that these children were going to move to Slovakia and live with the grandmother.

The Court were not best pleased that the LA had unilaterally decided that they weren’t going to implement the Court of Appeal’s decision.

The Court of Appeal expressed this fairly witheringly

3. The performance of the local authority since seems to me, albeit without the fullest investigation, lamentable. We have not had any evidence from officers of the county council, which might of course explain or justify what on the correspondence seems to have been almost a conscious endeavour to defy the direction and pace for transition clearly set out in the judgment of the majority on 16 November.

4. The tragedy is that, whoever may be responsible for the confusion, lack of control, and lack of direction over the last four weeks, the children have suffered. The transition is now more difficult to manage and plan than it was on 16 November. A precious period of four weeks has elapsed which only increases the uncertainty for the children and introduces the stagnation of a process which essentially required firm forward progress.

 

It emerged that the LA had been unhappy with the Court of Appeal decision and been taking advice about appealing it, and had decided that they wished to do so. They had taken the decision that increasing grandmother’s contact and building up the relationship might hamper their appeal and thus had not implemented a transitional plan as the Court of Appeal had asked them to do (and subsequently pressed them to do)

They had not, at the November hearings, sought leave to appeal, or a stay, or indicated that they were contemplating that course of action.

The Court was therefore given one plan of transition to grandmother’s care drawn up by those representing grandmother, one by the Slovakian authorities (who were obviously perplexed by the scale of the resistance to these children moving to their country) and one that had been drawn up by the LA  (obviously slowing the pace of transition to give them the chance to go and get their behinds kicked by a larger number of Judges in an altogether different building. Also see below for the timing of the creation of the plan)

 Always a risk in having three plans before a Court that they decide that none of them pass the Goldilocks test, and make their own, which will be ‘just right’ and that’s exactly what they did.

 

9. Our first task, perhaps, is therefore to be much more directive in relation to the next steps than we were on 16 November. On that occasion we relied on the responsibility of the local authority. We relied, perhaps over-optimistically, on the belief that there would be harmony, that there would be collaboration and that there would be a general acceptance of the orders of this court. In that we have been disappointed.

The submission made by Mr Bellamy, which has much force with me, is that this transition plan proffered by the local authority saw the light of day at about 30 minutes past midnight this morning and is written without any consultation at all with the grandmother or with her very experienced solicitor and counsel.

 

10. How then should we be directive? If fairness to adults and general justice were to rule, I would certainly opt for Mr Bellamy’s plan, if not that of Ms Cisarova. But whatever the history of adult behaviour, we have to above all search for the welfare of the children, and I reach the reluctant conclusion that the proposal of Ms Cisarova and, more narrowly, the proposal of Mr Bellamy fail the test of what is best for the children.

11. Accordingly I would reject all three proposed transition plans. I would direct that the process of transition must start immediately, by Monday next at the latest, and that it must be completed to ensure that these children have left this jurisdiction and arrived in Slovakia by 4 January at the very latest.

 

 

That pretty much settled that. The Court then considered whether this should be done under an Interim Care Order, or a Residence Order, with grandmother agreeing to the children being section 20 accommodated during the transition period. There was a two-to-one split on that, with the Court opting for a Residence Order and s20 consent.

 Leave to appeal was also refused, the LA were directed to get any formal application for appeal in by 19th December (I think 3 working days later) and the stay was refused.

 It would be fair to say that Mr Norton, representing the LA, whom I know and like, has had more successful days in his professional career.

 

14. It is high time that the adults surrounding these children, whether they be family members, whether they be laudable foster carers, or whether they be local authority officials, started working wholeheartedly to achieve the result which we impose. If there is some fundamental unforeseen development which requires judicial intervention then there must be an application to the Applications Judge of the Family Division

 

This case does point up the difficulties in trying to get the Court of Appeal to case manage a case, the family were very lucky here that they were able to get hearings so quickly. It also shows that you defy the Court of Appeal at your peril, and that if you do intend to appeal a decision that they make and not begin implementing it, you had better put everyone on notice.

 It doesn’t seem that any applications for costs were made, but the need for the December hearing must have sailed pretty close to that point.  I don’t know if they lodged their appeal, they may have been tempted, given that they had three different Court of Appeal judgments to appeal against…

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