What is child abduction?

The phrase ‘child abduction’ is conjures up disturbing images of menacing strangers but in reality, such crimes are rare. Children are actually more likely to be abducted by one of their own parents. Sometimes such parents are angry or alienated following an acrimonious divorce or separation and want to prevent the other parent from seeing their child or children, whatever the family courts may have ruled. Sometimes their principal motivation is making a fresh start or moving closer to friends or family, no matter the impact on the other parent.

If the abductor remains within the UK when they run off, the matter may be stressful for the remaining parent but it is a straightforward matter from a legal perspective. The Police will locate and arrest the parent as soon as they can. The child will normally then be sent back to live with the other parent, although in some cases they may instead go to foster parents or other relatives. As you might expect, abducting a child will not impress family court judges and breaking the law in this way is likely to have a major impact on the mother or father’s continuing role in the child’s life.

But what if the alienated parent flies abroad, beyond the legal authority of the English family courts and the British Police? This is a relatively common occurrence when relationships break down acrimoniously – especially if one of the parents is not from this country. If a multinational couple divorce or break up, the expatriate partner may not feel much like staying in the UK and instead start to long for family and home – while being understandably loathe to abandon their children. The temptation to just hop on a plane with them in defiance of the law can be an overwhelming one. But of course, doing so it deprives the child of their right to an ongoing relationship with the other parent.

What is the Hague Convention?

The Hague Convention provides a solution to the legal dilemmas posed by international child abduction, offering a relatively speedy way to return children to their home countries. As long as the abandoned parent lives in a participating country (there are now more than 100), he or she can hire a lawyer and apply via them to the courts for the return of their child. The second country is obliged to honour that request unless the runaway parent mounts a successful defence. The available defences include:

  • That the other parent agreed to the child moving abroad.
  • That the child does not wish to return (if she or she is old enough to express a view).
  • That the child was not ‘habitually resident’ (normally resident) in the first country despite the claims of the other parent.
  • That the child has been settled in their new environment for a year or more.
  • “…that there is a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable ”

The Hague Convention is more formally known as the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

How do I find a lawyer?

So, what should you do if you are unlucky enough to have your child or children abducted abroad by your ex? The stakes are high: what is more important, after all, than your children? You will need a lawyer and soon: time is of the essence in Hague Convention cases. The sooner the proceedings begin the sooner the child can come home, and the less stress and disruption they will experience. Plus, as we noted above, if they end up staying for a year or more in their new country, the other parent can argue in court that they are now settled and should not be returned.

When choosing a lawyer for your case, look for a family law firm with clear signs of expertise and trustworthiness. For example, the following are all solid marks of quality:

  • The profiles of solicitors employed by the firm – these should be clearly listed on the firm’s website: how many have worked on cases involving international abductions or parenting disputes in general?
  • How well-established the firm appears to be. A well-established firm will have been attracting clients by recommendation and word-of-mouth for years – and that will, of course, be because they do a good job.
  • The reviews received by the firm and its principal partners in international law directory The Legal 500?

One question you will need to ask yourself is: where should the firm be located? Traditionally people have hired lawyers based relatively close to where they live, in order to make face-to-face meetings easier. But that may seem less important in the age of Zoom and Skype. When it comes to your children, we think the best firm should be a higher priority than the nearest.