A number of years ago I acted for a father in a bitterly contested set of residence (traditionally known as “custody”) proceedings involving a six year old girl (with a foreign born mother).  It culminated in a two day final hearing. We achieved a joint residence order for our client, but at the end of the case the Judge expressed the view that the child’s passports should be given back to the mother.

Within a fortnight the six year old had been abducted by the mother back to her country of birth and our client has never seen or spoken to his daughter since.

Attention was drawn to the dreadful plight of the left-behind parent in a recent article by Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian (See “My Partner abducted my child: the parents left behind”, The Guardian, 21 September 2013). Charities such as Reunite also publicise and work to reduce such crimes as well as support the victims  of abduction.

From an international family lawyer’s perspective there are various steps that can be taken. First, if the abduction is detected while still in progress, a court order can be obtained at short notice. This means the abductor can be caught before leaving the country. Failing that, many countries have signed up to the Hague Convention on the International Aspects of Child Abduction. This means the local courts in the country where a child has been abducted to are obliged to return an abducted child, with only limited exceptions.  Finally, there are options for what is known as “non-Convention” countries such as making local applications for a child’s return, applying political pressure and even contacting agents that specialise in locating and returning abducted children.

Effective lawyering plays a part in asking the right questions and building on a client’s own knowledge of their former partner.  It is, for example, far more cost-effective to insist upon a passport being handed over to us or held by the court than it is to put safeguards in place only after any abduction process has begun.

None of the above is a complete panacea.  There will always be a number (currently about 600 per year) of people who do succeed in slipping out of the country, but there should be none. My case a few years ago is a good example where no court order could alter the devastating result not just for the father but for his daughter.  There are however many happier cases where children are returned and we can and do assist before it is too late.

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