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OK, take custody

 

The High Court in Re D (Children: Abduction) 2016

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/3990.html

dealt with a private law dispute between parents over their children.  (I know that most family lawyers are gritting their teeth, wincing and in agonies about the use of the word ‘custody’ in the heading, but it is a direct quote from the key part of the case).

There seemed to be a lot of unhappiness between the parents as to the amount of maintenance that the father was paying to the mother.  The mother and children lived in France, the father in England.  They had a frank exchange of views by email and texts – starting about mother’s request that father extend his holiday with the children for two days and then getting very heated.  Unfortunately for the mother, this exchange of views happened whilst father was having holiday contact with the children so they were in his care, and she at one point used the words ‘OK take custody’

The father duly did, and when the mother sought the return of the children to her care and made an application to that effect relying on his abduction, the father’s case was that the mother had given clear and unequivocal consent in the message “Ok take custody” for the children being in his care, which is a defence to the Hague Convention abduction remedies.

On the face of it, “Ok take custody” is not a wise thing to say to someone when you are arguing about where the children should live, but it is also important to look at the context. Mother’s case was that the words were heat of the moment in a heated and difficult exchange and not to be taken seriously, father’s case was that she meant them literally and clearly and unequivocally consented.

Let’s look at the whole exchange :-

 

 

  • In the summer of this year the parties agreed that the father would bring the children to England for a holiday lasting about five weeks. It was agreed that he would collect them on 26th June and return them on 30th July. Prior to the children’s departure to England, and over the first few days after their arrival, the parties engaged in a lengthy email exchange arguing about a range of matters. Translations of all the relevant emails have been put before me. Initially, they argued about whether the father could keep the children for two further days. It was the mother’s request that he do so; the father refused. The mother asked again; the father refused again. In so doing, he alluded to the fact that he was paying what he described as an “enormous amount of maintenance”.
  • That led to a lengthy email from the mother in which she said inter alia about his payment of maintenance:

 

“It’s your duty to do that. You’re not doing it for me. Don’t pay maintenance if you don’t want to, couldn’t care less. What are you complaining about? Do you want to swap roles, even though my maintenance won’t be such an enormous amount as yours, as you make so clear?”

In his reply the father said inter alia:

“If you’re not there to pick them up on 30th July in the afternoon I will file a written record of your absence and they will go back to school in England.”

In her reply, the mother said:

“Okay, if it was so simple then separated parents would send their children here and there without worrying about their wellbeing. Instead of filing a solution, you threaten me. Okay, I’m waiting to see. Bring them back the last week at school or else I’ll file a complaint for kidnapping.”

The father replied:

“It’s very simple, you agreed to take them back on the 30th of July and I cannot keep them any longer.”

A little later:

“There’s no point in making a fuss about nothing, everything was very clear and the dates were clearly stated.

You’re the one who wants to change the dates, so it’s up to you to come up with a solution.

This is my last email on this subject.”

 

  • All those emails took place on 20th and 21st June. That was the end of the exchange. The children were collected by the father and brought back to England on 26th June for their holiday.
  • On 1st July the email exchange resumed with further arguments about money. In the course of these arguments, at 14.49 on 1st July the father sent an email saying inter alia:

 

“If you’re not happy with the maintenance you get I can take custody back. I’m fed up of you treating me like a bank.

I’m waiting for you to confirm about the 30th of July.”

The email exchange then continued as follows. At 15.12 the mother sent an email saying simply: “OK take custody.” A minute later she sent a further email to the father saying:

“You must still be in Paris? Pop round to pick up the rest of their belongings.”

At 15.23, that is to say some ten minutes later, the father replied:

“I will need a letter from you saying that I have formal custody starting today, I will also use this email.

It’s not very important about their belongings.

You need to pay about €450 maintenance.

I let you have custody because you were creating problems when I had them last year. Unfortunately you carried on creating problems once you had custody.

This time you’ll have to get sorted, it will be the last time they move, you’ll have to sort visits out the best you can.”

At 15.33, some ten minutes afterwards, the mother replied:

“You know the procedures.

Start by making an appointment with the Family Judge.”

At 15.42, nine minutes later, the father replied:

“They are in France because I agreed to it, and that was following procedures in their original place of residency.

This time is simply them coming home.”

At 15.52, some ten minutes later, the mother replied:

“Oh no. They go to school in France and their primary residence is in France. You want to go to prison, abduct them. You will need the French judge’s ruling to put them in a school. Good luck.”

At 15.55, some three minutes later, the father replied:

“Abducting? You just told me to take custody.

I’m not playing around here.

No worries about the judge in France, seeing as you’re the one who enrolled them in school in France and they were staying with you. I’ll let you fill in the questionnaire which you can find here.”

He then attached a website link, presumably to the French court office. At 16.01, some six minutes later, the mother replied:

“Why should I fill this form in? You sort it out.

End of conversation.

Have a good day.”

If you can read that without wanting to bang both of their heads together, I’d like to thank you for visiting the blog St Francis of Assisi. Quick reminder that these people are actually adults, who have responsibility for looking after children.  My take here is that mother was not clearly and unequivocally consenting (things like “You want to go to prison, abduct them” are pretty suggestive that she’s not agreeing to a change of residence), but that she was also pretty foolish in not picking up that the father was more than willing to call her bluff on the sarcastic ‘ok take custody’ email.

  • The leading case on the question of consent in this jurisdiction under Article 13(a) is the decision of the Court of Appeal in Re P-J (Children)(Abduction: Habitual Residence: Consent) [2009] EWCA Civ 588. Consent is a defence which the defendant has to prove. At para.48 Ward LJ identified the following nine principles to be applied when the court is considering a defence of consent:

“(1)  Consent to the removal of the child must be clear and unequivocal. 

(2)  Consent can be given to the removal at some future but unspecified time or upon the happening of some future event. 

(3)  Such advance consent must, however, still be operative and in force at the time of the actual removal.

(4)  The happening of the future event must be reasonably capable of ascertainment.  The condition must not have been expressed in terms which are too vague or uncertain for both parties to know whether the condition will be fulfilled.  Fulfilment of the condition must not depend on the subjective determination of one party, for example, ‘Whatever you may think, I have concluded that the marriage has broken down and so I am free to leave with the child.’ The event must be objectively verifiable.

(5)  Consent, or the lack of it, must be viewed in the context of the realities of family life, or more precisely, in the context of the realities of the disintegration of family life.  It is not to be viewed in the context of nor governed by the law of contract.

(6)  Consequently consent can be withdrawn at any time before actual removal.  If it is, the proper course is for any dispute about removal to be resolved by the courts of the country of habitual residence before the child is removed. 

(7)  The burden of proving the consent rests on him or her who asserts it.

(8)  The enquiry is inevitably fact specific and the facts and circumstances will vary infinitely from case to case.

(9)  The ultimate question is a simple one even if a multitude of facts bear upon the answer.  It is simply this: had the other parent clearly and unequivocally consented to the removal?”

  • It is the father’s case here that the mother in her emails made statements which amount to “clear and unequivocal consent”. He points in particular to her use of the word “consent” in the email to which I have alluded and the subsequent emails, which he invites the court to read as clearly indicating that the mother was genuinely consenting and inviting him to go to the French court to obtain a formal order to avoid being accused of abduction. This is his interpretation of the references in the email exchanges which I have quoted to the court forms.
  • On the other hand, Dr. Rob George on behalf of the mother submits, first, that there was no clear or unequivocal consent and, secondly, even if the mother did give consent in the email exchanges on 1st July, that was plainly withdrawn on 23rd July, seven days before the end of the holiday on 30th July which constituted the point at which the children were retained in this jurisdiction.
  • I have no hesitation in accepting Dr. George’s submissions. First, I do not regard the mother’s words as I have quoted in the email exchanges on 1st July as amounting to “a clear and unequivocal consent”. Plainly what she said in those emails was said in the heat of the moment, and I remind myself of the observations of Ward LJ in the passage from Re P-J which I have just quoted, namely that: “Consent, or the lack of it, must be viewed in the context of the realities of … the disintegration of family life.” This exchange took place in the course of a heated conversation between the parties in which the mother was becoming frustrated and angry about what she saw as the father’s unreasonable behaviour so far as the precise timing of the contact was concerned, the date on which the children would be returned, and matters of money. Whether or not she was justified in becoming frustrated and angry, I know not, but what is clear to me is that her statements made in the emails have to be viewed in that context, and I do not in those circumstances regard them as clear or unequivocal. To my mind, the fact that she referred to abduction only a few minutes later in a further email further shows that the emails do not amount to “a clear or unequivocal consent”.
  • Secondly, even if I am wrong about that and the statements made in those emails were “a clear and unequivocal consent”, manifestly that consent was withdrawn before the children were retained.
  • Accordingly, applying, as I do, the principles in Re P-J which relate to removal by analogy to the retention of the children, any consent that was given was plainly withdrawn on or by 23rd July in the email which I have just read out. This, to my mind, is a blatant example of unlawful child abduction and my plain duty under the Hague Convention is to order the summary return of all three children, which I shall now do.

 

 

The tussels from Brussels

 

{Warning, this post contains some Brussels II stuff, but it also has something potentially important – I’ll try to keep it short}

 

A v D and Others 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/3851.html

 

It involves a 3 year old girl, mother is Polish, father English. They lived together in England but then separated. Father became worried that mother would remove the child to Poland, and applied to the English Courts for an order preventing that.

In April 2012, the father, concerned that the mother might remove E to Poland, issued proceedings in the Bournemouth County Court seeking a prohibited steps order preventing her from removing the child from the jurisdiction, together with a parental responsibility order. After two preliminary hearings, the matter came before District Judge Dancey on 3rd May 2012. A transcript if that hearing is now available. The mother, who was represented, gave evidence on oath stating that, if she were permitted to take the child to Poland for a visit between 14th May 2012 and 16th July 2012, she would return E to this jurisdiction at the end of that period. The father, who was acting in person, indicated that he would not oppose the mother taking E to Poland for a holiday, although he expressed some unhappiness at the length of the proposed visit. On the basis of the mother’s undertaking, the District Judge made an order permitting the mother to remove E to Poland for the purposes of a holiday between 14th May and 16th July 2012.

 

It will not surprise any of you cynical hard-bitten readers to learn that she never came back from that holiday.

 

  1. Shortly after arriving in Poland, the mother applied to a court in that country for a custody order and subsequently wrote to the Bournemouth County Court stating that she did not intend to return. On 24th July 2012, the father filed an application with the Central Authority for England and Wales under the Hague Child Abduction Convention 1980 and Council Regulation (EC) 2201/2003, (hereafter referred to as Brussels II Revised), seeking the summary return of E to this jurisdiction. On 10th August, the father’s application in the county court was adjourned generally with liberty to restore. The father’s application under the Hague Convention was pursued via the Central Authorities but on 17th December 2012, it was dismissed by the district court in Ruda Slaska in Poland. The father’s appeal against that decision was subsequently dismissed on 24th October 2013.
  2. On 30th April 2014, the father made an application in the existing English proceedings seeking an order committing the mother for contempt of court, an order for parental responsibility and a contact order. The application was transferred to the High Court and listed before me in July 2014 to consider as a preliminary issue whether or not the court had jurisdiction to entertain the application. In the reserved judgment delivered 31st July, I held that this court had jurisdiction to entertain the father’s application for orders concerning matters of parental responsibility. In the course of legal argument at the hearing, however, I indicated to Mr Edward Devereux, counsel for the father, that I proposed to consider whether the court should exercise its power under Article 15 of Brussels II Revised to transfer the case to Poland. Mr Devereux thereupon submitted that the court had no power to transfer proceedings under Article 15 because no party to the proceedings accepted the transfer, but seeing that this argument did not initially find favour with the court, he asked for further time to consider the issue, having regard to the fact that it had only arisen in the course of argument.

 

I’ll dash through it quickly, because everyone hates Brussels II. A Court can, and now must, consider whether the proceedings ought to be transferred to another EU Country to deal with, if they are better placed to deal with them AND the child has a connection to that country.

 

For these purposes, the connection is either:-

That the mother, who has PR, is now habitually resident in Poland

OR

that the child has acquired habitual residence in Poland AFTER the English Court started to deal with the case

 

The father’s case (and I have a huge amount of sympathy for him here) is that the mother and child are only in Poland because mum abducted him and breached Court orders, yet she is now being rewarded by having the Court case on home turf – to transfer would be to reward her for her wrong-doings.

 

  1. First, Mr Devereux informed me that this case presents a factual situation which, so far as counsel have been able to discover, has not been considered before in any reported case, that is to say a proposal, arising in private law proceedings following the unlawful retention of a child, to transfer the proceedings under Article 15 to the country in which the child has been unlawfully retained. Mr Devereux stressed the fact that E is only in Poland as a result of a wrongful act perpetrated by her mother. On any view this is a blatant case of child abduction and it is not right for a court to reward a party who has acted unlawfully. Furthermore, the mother appears to have committed perjury before the English court. A transcript of the proceedings before District Judge Dancey has now been obtained and demonstrates clearly that the mother gave a promise on oath that she would return E to the jurisdiction of this court in July 2012 at the conclusion of the holiday. The father has launched committal proceedings for contempt of court arising out of the mother’s breach of her undertaking and it is asserted on behalf of the father that he will continue to press this application. In those circumstances, proceedings will in any event be continued in this jurisdiction. Mr. Devereux submitted that it would therefore be undesirable for proceedings to be continuing in both countries.
  2. Mr Devereux further contrasted the respective abilities of the parties to participate in proceedings in the two countries. The mother was able actively and properly to engage in proceedings in this country. She has a good understanding of the English language, as is plain from her oral evidence before District Judge Dancey. She was able to give a promise on oath which the judge felt able to accept. In contrast, the father asserts that he has no knowledge of the Polish language and no understanding of the procedures of the Polish courts. He does not have the means to travel to Poland and stay there to participate in proceedings. Poland has a system of legal aid but, as demonstrated in he expert report from Dr Kasinska-Wiercinska, there are in practice a number of difficulties facing a litigant in the father’s position who wishes to apply for such assistance.
  3. Mr Devereux further submitted that, all things being equal, E’s best interests would be served by having a relationship with her father and her father being involved in her upbringing. This court can ensure that this happens speedily by making a child arrangements order for contact and issuing an Annex III certificate which could be automatically enforceable in Poland. In contrast, if the case is transferred to Poland there is, submitted Mr Devereux, no guarantee that any application made by the father would be heard expeditiously nor, if and when it was heard, that he would be granted contact with his daughter.

 

As the Judge was Baker J, the law is flawlessly applied and set out, and the approach was really to answer the three questions posed by Munby J (as he then was)

In AB v JLB Brussels II Revised Article 15 [2009] 1 FLR 517 at paragraph 35 Munby J (as he then was) identified the three questions to be considered by a court when deciding whether to make a request under Article 15:

“First, it must determine whether the child has, within the meaning of Article 15(3), ‘a particular connection’ with the relevant other member State. . . . .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))?

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.

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.”

Baker J found that the answer to all three questions was yes, and that the Polish authorities should be asked to take over the case.

Part of his thinking here was that with a mother who was living in Poland and adamant that she would not return to England and play no part in any Court proceedings in England, there was no likelihood of any actual contact for father getting underway.  [My reading of the case is that father was seeking to spend time with the child, rather than have the child live with him full-time. That might have made a difference, it is hard to say]

 

25. ..without the mother’s cooperation and participation in the proceedings, it is highly unlikely that any court will make any order for contact in this case. All the evidence suggests that the mother does not intend to take part in these English proceedings, and without her co-operation the father’s application for contact cannot be resolved by the English court. The fact that the father is intending to pursue his application in this jurisdiction to commit the mother for contempt makes her participation in any English proceedings concerning parental responsibility and contact even less likely. She may also be reluctant to take part in proceedings in Poland, but crucially the Polish court would have the power, should it choose to exercise it, to oblige her to participate. Although the father would be at a considerable disadvantage were he required to participate in proceedings in Poland, it is reasonable to expect him to do so to the best of his ability. It may be possible, however, for ways to be found to assist his participation in Polish proceedings.

  1. When one turns from the fact-finding hearing to the welfare stage of the proceedings, it is plain that the balance of the evidence on welfare matters lies in Poland. I agree with Miss Green’s observation that the Polish courts have a very real advantage by reason of the child’s presence within their jurisdiction. This makes it possible for all necessary enquiries and investigations as to her welfare to be carried out there. E is living in Poland. Her life centres round her mother and friends and family in that country. Any contact will inevitably have to start in Poland. There would of course have to be some investigation of the father’s circumstances, which would involve consideration of his home and life in this country. But the preponderance of evidence as to welfare matters will arise in Poland.

 

I don’t doubt that this is the right decision in law – I’m a fully paid-up member of the Baker J fan-club  (I have the badge, and I know the secret handshake), but God, this seems utterly unfair to this father. He did the right thing – he got an order from a Court to stop mum taking the child to Poland, only to find that in the teeth of someone who was prepared to breach it, Article 15 of Brussels II rewards her and punishes him.

And this happened without mum even ASKING for Brussels II to apply.

An air of indifference

 

The High Court kicking ass and taking names in Re A (A child) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/604.html

 

This involved a set of care proceedings in which the father was Latvian. For one reason or another, he did not get served with notice of the proceedings or get told that his child was in care or that he was entitled to be represented for FIVE months.  That despite a series of orders being made that he was to be located and served.

 

The High Court understandably took a dim view of this

 

As far as I can establish orders made were not complied with. When the matter first came before me in September, I am afraid to say that there was an air of indifference by the parties as to the fact that there had been woeful non-compliance with court orders.

 

 

The High Court gave some guidance on cases where one parent lives abroad, this being a more common feature in care proceedings

 

  1. In cases such as this, where one or both of the parents lives abroad, the following action should be taken:

(1) At an early stage every effort should be made to locate, contact and engage a parent who lives abroad. If that other country is one of the signatories to B2R information as to the parent’s whereabouts can be obtained through an Article 55 request via the Central Authority. My experience is they respond effectively and efficiently to focused requests made;

(2) Once contacted the parties and, if necessary, the court should take active steps to secure legal representation for such parents. In this case nothing effective was done for five months. It took less than five hours at the hearing in September to contact the father and secure representation. Most solicitors who do this sort of work have a wealth of experience in undertaking work where one of the parties resides abroad. It is now a much more regular feature of this type of case;

(3) The court must effectively timetable any issues as to jurisdiction to avoid the delays that occurred in this case. This includes early consideration regarding transfer to the High Court. A party seeking written expert legal advice about the extent of this court’s jurisdiction as to habitual residence is not likely to be a helpful step. The question of jurisdiction is a matter to be determined by the court following submissions from the party’s legal representatives.

(4) There needs to be a more hands-on approach by all parties with regard to compliance with court orders. No party should be able to sit back as a spectator and watch non-compliance with orders and not shoulder any responsibility that flow as a result of those failures. The air of indifference by all parties in this case at the hearing in September to the fact that the father had not been served for five months was shocking.

 

 

Ignore those at your peril. I imagine if you happen to be before this particular judge and haven’t followed these guidelines if the issue arises, that it might turn out to be a difficult day in Court.  The retired manager of Manchester United was often described, when shouting at his players, to have given them ‘the hairdryer treatment’   – I suspect that would be putting it mildly. *

 

(* I note Charles J’s comments to the House of Lords committee looking at the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that writing a judgment on a deprivation of liberty case left him feeling like he had been in a washing machine on spin cycle)

 

At any rate, I don’t think that the judicial approach would be indifference.

 

Returning to the case itself, once the father was served, his application was that the case should be dealt with in Latvia.

 

His starting point was that the child was not habitually resident in England, but in Latvia when the proceedings started, so the English Court has no jurisdiction. His fallback position was that even if the English Court had jurisdiction, Latvia should be preferred under Brussels II

 

 

The father’s case was that the mother had taken the child out of Latvia and come to England without his consent, and that having not consented to that removal, it was an unlawful one

 

It is agreed in those circumstances that the removal of A was wrongful pursuant to Articles 3 and 5 of the Hague Convention, because he was habitually resident in Latvia prior to the removal. The father had rights of custody in respect of him under Latvian law under Articles 177 and 178, the father did not consent to his removal and the removal was in breach of his rights of custody which he was exercising or would have done but for the removal.

 

 

The mother claimed that the father had acquiesced in the removal

 

In determining acquiescence the House of Lords decision Re H (Abduction: Acquiescence) [1997] 1 FLR 872 is the leading authority setting out the factors that the court should take into account. They are summarised as follows: firstly, the question of whether the wronged parent has acquiesced in the removal or retention of a child depends on his actual state of mind; secondly, the subjective intention of the wronged parent is a question of fact for the trial judge to determine in all the circumstances of the case, the burden of proof being on the abducting parent; thirdly, the trial judge in reaching his decision on that question of fact will, no doubt, be inclined to attach more weight to the contemporaneous words or actions of the wronged parent than to his bare assertions in evidence of his intentions; fourthly, the court should be slow to infer an intention to acquiesce from attempts by the wronged parent to effect a reconciliation or agree a voluntary return of the abducted children and; fifthly, where the words or actions of the wronged parent had clearly and unequivocally shown or had led the other parent to believe that the wronged parent is not asserting or going to assert his right to the summary return of the child and is inconsistent with such a return, justice requires that the wronged parent be held to have acquiesced.

 

 

The Court was satisfied that the father had been making efforts to locate the mother and the child, and had made applications to Courts in Latvia, this being compelling reasons to discount a suggestion that he had acquiesced to the removal.

 

The Court then looked at whether mother had demonstrated a defence to the abduction that would make it justifiable, and concluded that she had not, or whether there was now ‘settlement in England; and that there was not. (If you are fascinated about the law on abduction, there’s a lot of meaty information in this judgment, but it probably lies outside of the scope of non-specialists)

 

 

Thus, the child was wrongly removed from Latvia, that removal did not change residence, and the English Court had to order return of the child to Latvia, and any future proceedings would be in Latvia rather than England.  The child had legally been habitually resident in Latvia (although was physically in England) at the time the proceedings began

 

  1. For the reasons that I have already set out, I do not consider the father has acquiesced to the retention by the mother of A here and in the same way I do not consider he has acquiesced to A’s habitual residence here and in those circumstances Article 10 B2R applies and A’s habitual residence remains in Latvia.
  1. So for those very brief reasons I am clear that at the time the proceedings were commenced in this jurisdiction A’s habitual residence was in Latvia and so this court, other than for the limited purposes under Article 20 B2R, does not have jurisdiction to determine the care proceedings.
  1. In those circumstances A should be returned to Latvia and I will hear submissions from the parties as to the practical arrangements that need to be made.