There haven’t been any posts since Christmas, because there haven’t been any judgments published. That’s sort of the way that a topical law blog works – when the Courts go quiet, I go a bit quiet too.
This one from the High Court, Mostyn J, is not what one could describe as interesting (Brussels II cases are NEVER interesting) but in the context of the biggest child protection story of last year, it might be politically important. (I was hoping someone else would write it up first, as I had my fill of BRII with all of the Slovak cases last year)
Re D (A child) 2013 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4078.html
Brussels II is basically legal shorthand for meaning the mechanism by which the Court in one EU state says to another “Actually, you know that case you’re dealing with – well, we think it ought to come over to us and we’ll deal with it”. It is also important to note that where a BRII application is made, the rules are that it must be determined within six weeks.
You may remember a lot of discussion in the media about the C-section case as to why our courts were dealing with it at all – the answer is fairly simple – the child was physically here, an English Court was presented with an application, and no Italian Court made an application under Brussels II for the case to be transferred lock stock and barrel to them, nor did anyone else.
Anyway, this one involved a family who were in the UK but had originated from the Czech Republic – care proceedings were initiated here, and eventually a plan of adoption was put forward. The background is set out here
- The background to this case is set out in my very full fact-finding judgment dated 30 November 2012 ( EWHC 3362 (Fam)). As I said there, the story that unfolded before me was wrenchingly dispiriting and was one of abuse, misery, exploitation, criminality, and unrelenting vice. The father here was the step-father of the mother. He seduced her (thereby committing the crime of sexual activity with a child family member as defined in sections 25 and 27 Sexual Offences Act 2003) at the same time that he was sleeping with the mother’s own mother. The mother’s half-siblings were allowed to be aware that their father was sleeping with their sister. The father plied the mother with drugs. It was a truly appalling state of affairs.
- In short, the judgment described the father as a malevolent Svengali. It described how on Day 5 of the hearing he fled to the Czech Republic.
The Czech authorities became involved, and put forward a plan whereby the mother and the child would live in the Czech Republic together, with support. The mother also sought to transfer the proceedings to the Czech Republic. (It would be fair to say that the Czech Republic were fairly lukewarm in their enthusiasm for that)
For the child therefore, the jurisdictional issue was not a merely semantic one – the decision as to whether this was properly an English case or a Czech one would determine whether the child would be adopted or live with mother. Both sides indicated that they would seek leave to appeal if the decision went against them.
- It is important to recognise what an order authorising a transfer request under Article 15 entails. It is a request of the foreign court, no more than that. It is not a request to the government of the other EU state. Nor is it a request to its executive arm, the central authority. Nor is it a request to the local authority of the municipality of the foreign state. It is a request to a fellow EU court. And that court has the final say on whether to accept the case or not. It must decide within six weeks. If it accepts the request the case will go there. If it does not it will stay here and be determined here.
- In my judgment although Article 15 is neutrally phrased it contains an important subtext which is that in child public protection cases the court of a fellow EU state ought, all other things being equal, to decide the future of its own nationals unless the connection of the child to his or her homeland has become so tenuous as to be an irrelevant consideration.
- But in most cases all things are not equal. And so a scrutiny of the facts must be made in each case.
Mostyn J decided that on the facts of the case the case ought to be transferred to the Czech Republic IF AND ONLY IF, having been told of that decision, the Czech Courts agreed to do so within six weeks, otherwise it would remain in the UK.
The important things about this case are :-
1. For the first time I am aware of, the application under BRII was made not by the foreign country or court, but by a party to the UK proceedings (Mostyn J specifically concludes that this is acceptable under BRII and that the application can originate from inside the proceedings – thus for the first time there’s a mechanism by which a party in the UK proceedings can try to PUSH the proceedings to another jurisdiction, rather than having to rely on that country seeking to PULL them). In the words of Ron Burgundy – that’s kind of a big deal.
2. Mostyn J highlights that in the Czech Republic there is no non-consensual (forced) adoption, and the tension therefore with the Supreme Court authority in Re B that a placement order should only be made if nothing else will do.
3. He also highlights that it is not for English Courts to critique foreign systems or indeed the actions of foreign social workers.
4. The case is obviously going to be appealed, and that will be an opportunity for the Court of Appeal to give some guidance on this issue, which will crop up more and more frequently, of how to deal with cases where one or both parents is living or plans to live in another EU country by the time of the final hearing.
In my opinion the Court of Appeal needs to consider the very difficult issues thrown up by this case and to give definitive guidance as to how future Article 15 requests in public law cases should be dealt with. Certainly I would have thought that they would wish to emphasise that any court hearing a public law case where there is a potential Article 15 aspect should raise this with counsel at an early stage and give consideration to transfer to the High Court. But that will be for them. I confine myself only to granting permission to appeal to the local authority and to the Guardian. Any appeal must be heard with great expedition and I understand that the Court of Appeal would be able to hear the appeal in the first week of the forthcoming Lent term, and in fact will be giving directions later today.
So, is being from another EU country a get out of jail free card? Well, perhaps, perhaps not
- The evidence here suggests that save in cases of abandonment adoption in the Czech Republic is only permitted with parental consent. It is therefore even more momentous where a local authority seeks this remedy in a case where the laws of the child’s homeland would not allow it. Indeed, it may fairly be said to give rise to diplomatic and political questions about the relations between states within the Union.
- I am fully alive to the fact that in 2004 this family came to this country and settled here. Social Services were not involved with the family until October 2011. When a family immigrates here they must be taken to accept all our laws whether they relate to tax, crime or the protection of children. The fact that our family law permit non-consensual adoption (in contrast to the law of their homeland) is part of the price of the exercise of the right to settle here. This feature is a strong pointer against making the Article 15 request.
Mostyn J certainly felt that where there was the potential for a BRII application, the Judge ought to discuss that with counsel, and if so to transfer the case to the High Court. Although BRII is dry and dusty and not a lot of fun, this decision – and whatever the Court of Appeal do with it, are going to be important for any child protection case where a parent is from another EU Country (purely anecdotally, for my own caseload over the last five years, that’s about 15-20% of them). It will be important that the advocates understand what would be involved in such an application and what the tests and arguments are, and important for those advising parents to know that this is an option which might be available. For some parents, moving back to their birth country might not be something they want to do, but it is certainly a powerful tool particularly where that birth country takes a different view about non-consensual adoption.