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What family lawyers don’t tell you about child relocation

Lucinda Connell, Associate at Major Family Law, the best divorce and family law specialists, comments in this month's North East Times:

Lucinda Connell silhouetteLucinda Connell, Associate at Major Family Law, the best divorce and family law specialists, comments in this month’s North East Times:

In our ever shrinking world, many families have close connections with more than one country. As a consequence of this, together with other reasons such as career prospects and lifestyle choices, there is considerably more movement of international families.  Those seeking to emigrate or relocate often receive advice from numerous and various agencies such as the Government, migration agents and lawyers.

If a separated parent is seeking to relocate and move abroad permanently with their child(ren), they will be swiftly advised that they must legally have the consent of the other parent – or the permission of the court if such consent is not forthcoming. However, parents seeking to relocate are rarely advised that following the relocation, they might never be allowed to return home with the children.  A desire to return home could of course be for any number of reasons although the most common would appear to be in the event of the parents subsequently separating or if one party wishes to stay whilst the other wants to go home; in such circumstances it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to be allowed to return home with children.   Thousands of parents across the world are currently experiencing these difficulties.

International law provides that when you arrive in a new country with the intention of staying there, the “habitual residence” of your child changes to the new country. Accordingly, unless the other parent provides permission for the children to be taken back home, an application for permission to relocate again must be made to the local court (the court in the country which you now reside).  The laws governing how a court treats such an application varies widely from one country to another and specialist legal advice in that particular country will be required.  It should not be assumed that the courts will readily grant permission for the children to return home again and the converse is often true in practice.  For example, there are many instances of permission for the children to return home being denied in cases where the parent with care is fleeing domestic violence, or is in dire financial straits or even where the other parent is imprisoned.  Again, much will depend upon the justice system in each individual country but a relocation application can take around 2 to 3 years to be dealt with and permission to return is by no means a given.

Needless to say, being stuck in a foreign country – and one which you do not wish to be in – is tough. It is likely that family members and friends who can provide support may be many thousands of miles away. Simply leaving and taking your children home is not an option as the removal of a child without the knowledge and consent of the other parent constitutes an offence of child abduction.  There are 81 countries in the world which are signatories to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Parental Child Abduction 1980.  The purpose of the Hague Convention is to secure a common accord and aim that a child removed (or retained) across an international border without the consent of all parents who have the right in law (generally the child’s parents) should be speedily returned to the state of the child’s habitual residence to enable the court in that state to make a decision about the child’s future.  Hague Convention proceedings are perhaps one of the few areas in international family law where decisions of the court and consequent action can be speedily taken; in addition to this, child abduction is a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment under the Convention; there are only narrow defences to a Hague Convention abduction which rarely succeed.­ Within Europe, the procedures and timetables under law known as Brussels II are even tighter and more vigorously enforced with less opportunity to oppose a return order.­ If a child is not returned, the courts of the country from which the child was taken can still make an order, known as a “trumping order”, requiring the child’s return.­ This order takes effect across Europe.

So, is there anything that parents can do to protect themselves in the event, for example, that one of them decides s/he does not like living in the new country but the other does or if relationship comes to an end? As with all important decision making processes, ensure you are armed with all information before you relocate and are therefore able to make an informed decision.  It is strongly advisable that you and the other parent consider such issues before relocation takes place.  Family mediators and lawyers will be able to provide further advice and aid discussions between you to ensure there are pre-agreed arrangements in place to cover the various scenarios that could arise.  Although there is currently no “pre-migration contract” in existence, the organization Expat Stuck Parent is working to produce one which will be similar to that of a Pre-Nuptial Agreement. Although such an agreement is not currently legally enforceable in a court, it is strong evidence of the arrangements that were agreed to be put into effect in the event that one of the parents wishes to return home with the children.  Whilst the interests of the individual children in every case are likely to take precedence, such an agreement is clear and cogent evidence of intention and undoubtedly significantly better than nothing.  A copy of a potential contract, together with lots of other information about the Hague Convention and Expat Stuck Parents can be found at www.expatstuckparent.org.