Around 500 British children were abducted and taken abroad by one of their parents in 2014. That’s double the number taken ten years ago.
Ease of travel and a growth in cross border relationships have meant that that more break-ups result in difficult decisions for separating parents.
According to Leicester based charity reunite International the number of children removed abroad against the wishes of one of their parents is far higher than the official statistics show. Last year reunite’s helpline managed in excess of 17 000 calls.
Under the 1980 Hague Convention children must be promptly returned to their country of ‘habitual residence’. Courts will not look into the rights and wrongs of a custody case, but will order the return of the child to their home country for hearings to be held there.
The unfortunate effect of this is that children who have been removed from their home country and then returned there under the 1980 Hague Convention, may then face further upheaval when their case is decided in the UK courts.
An additional problem for UK parents is that many countries where their children are taken have not signed up to the Hague Convention. So parents whose children are taken to Pakistan, India, Somalia, Nigeria or Egypt face the prospect of legal proceedings in those countries domestic courts.
In cases like this it seems extraordinary that mediation between two parents might be possible, and might deliver an agreement. The degree of acrimony and emotion is so high, there are complicating factors of cultural difference, two legal systems and possibly two languages. Despite these complexities mediation in these cases does happen and can work.
In 2002 reunite began a pilot project to see whether mediation could be possible in international child abduction cases.
They took 80 referrals, hoping that at least 20 of these would proceed to Mediation. In fact 28 of the cases went to full Mediation. In 75% of those cases an agreement was reached. And 95% of the parents involved said they would recommend mediation to others.
reunite now employs the services of around 6 specially trained mediators, who mediate around 30 cases per year.
As well as mediating in child abduction cases they mediate with parents wishing to relocate and those wishing to arrange contact across borders. Sometimes cases come to them many years after a child has been taken abroad.
The structure of these sessions is different from a domestic family mediation. It is much more intense. Three 3-hour meetings take place over two days.
One session happens on the first afternoon, then the following day the parties concerned hold another two 3-hour sessions.
Ideally the two parents are in the same room, but because of the nature of the dispute that is not always possible, so other means such as Skype or video conferencing are employed.
As anyone who has used Skype to communicate will know, it is not always easy however, a 3 way Skype is something that reunite are now trialing.
During the mediation sessions, solicitors from the respective countries are available on the phone for consultation. The desired end result is a memorandum of Understanding agreed between the two parents which can then be transferred into a Consent Order which is mirrored in the courts of both countries.
reunite International estimates that around 70% of abductors are the child’s primary carers, usually their mothers.
Most child abduction cases never make it as far as mediation. In fact perhaps only 5 % of these cases do reach mediation. But in those that do the central issue for the left behind parent is not always the wish for a permanent return, but for contact or visitation rights.
One of the worst possible outcomes in these cases would be for a return under the Hague convention, followed by a further re-return later after disputed custody proceedings with all the attendant stress and further damage to the relationship between the parties.
That a young child might face the trauma of three forced relocations is very distressing. This is why mediation can be a very useful alternative.
It is important that any attempt at mediating in these cases doesn’t delay legal proceedings.
Under the Hague Convention a final hearing should be held within 6 weeks. reunite say that if court proceedings are being held in the UK they often schedule the mediation to happen just before the court process to save travel costs for the parent.
Costs for mediation in these cases are £1,500 for up to three 3-hour mediation sessions – £750 to be paid by each parent.
However Legal Aid for mediation is automatically available for parents making an application under the Hague Convention when the child has been brought to the UK. If the child has been taken from the UK, costs depend on the legal system of the country to which the child has been taken.
In the words of one parent who has been through mediation ‘It avoids a courtroom battle, which in this type of situation only gets you to a no win situation.’
Frances Place is a solicitor with extensive experience of family law and civil mediation. She runs Progressive Mediation in Bristol with her husband Charles Place.
Reunite International is a Leicester based charity specialising in the movement of children across international borders : www.reunite.org