Cross-Border Child Abduction and Habitual Residence - Guideline Ruling

A parent who wishes to move from one country to another with his or her child must first obtain the consent of the parent left behind. That principle of international law is easily stated but, as a guideline Court of Appeal ruling showed, applying it in a way that protects the child's welfare is often a much more complicated matter.

The case concerned two children, aged six and eight, who were born in Germany, where they spent the first years of their lives. Both their parents were also born in Germany. After the parents' marriage came to an end, the father agreed that the mother could move to England with the children for 12 months or so.

After disagreements arose concerning the level of contact between the children and their father, the parents engaged in mediation. An approximate date for the children's return to Germany was agreed and a letter of intent signed by the parents stated in terms that the children's home would remain in Germany.

The mother, however, later announced that she would not be returning to Germany with the children. She had by then formed a relationship with a man in this country, whom she had since married, and was heavily pregnant with his child. The children had settled quickly in England and were doing well at English schools.

The father's response to the mother's decision was to launch proceedings under the 1980 Hague Convention, which enshrines the international ban on cross-border child abduction. In ordering the mother to return the children to Germany, a judge found that they remained habitually resident in the country of their birth and it would not be intolerable for them to go back there.

In upholding the mother's appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that she had always been the children's primary carer and that they had predominantly lived in England for a year prior to her decision. Whilst not diminishing the importance of their links to Germany, the Court found that the extent of their integration and the stability of their lives with their mother in England meant that they had become habitually resident in this country. The father's application was dismissed.