40 year anniversary for the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention

On 25 October 2020, it will be 40 years since the creation of an international agreement known commonly as the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention (“Abduction Convention”). While there are numerous international agreements to which England and Wales (and other parts of the UK) are party, the Abduction Convention probably has the highest profile in terms of press reporting and public awareness. This is because its aim is to tackle parental child abduction. Therefore, it often attracts coverage in the press relating to stories of a parent either allegedly taking a child or children out of the country without the other’s permission, or not returning the children following an agreed trip abroad.

Approaching the Abduction Convention’s 40 year anniversary, we take a brief look at why it was first created, what protections it offers to left-behind parents and how it has stood the test of time.

In the 1960s and 70s, the movement of people across international borders increased rapidly. This presented an abundance of opportunity relating to work and careers, sustainable cross-border relationships and the creation of international families who could, for example, have homes across continents. At the same time, it led to an increase in situations in which children were taken away from one of their parents without the other’s agreement (or the court’s permission), following which it was difficult to secure their return – this might happen if one parent had moved to live in a new country for a marriage but then decided when the marriage ended that they preferred to return with the children to live in their country of origin to be closer to a wider and pre-existing support network.

In the late 1970s, there was international acceptance of the unsatisfactory nature of this problem, coupled with support for a solution. The solution came in the form of an international agreement, the Abduction Convention, which also provided for the creation of a network of Central Authorities. There is a Central Authority in each signatory country or state and the Central Authorities help to collaborate across borders to secure a swift return of any child in the event of his or her wrongful removal.

The purpose of the Abduction Convention is to identify the whereabouts of children, and – unless there is a very good reason why they have been wrongfully removed or retained, such as for fear of abuse or persecution – to secure their return to the state in which they were resident before being taken, as well as to secure rights of access to children. Signatories to the Abduction Convention agree that the family court in a child’s home state – where the child was settled and integrated with family, friends, educationally and so on before their removal - are best placed to make any decisions about the child’s future living arrangements, rather than a court in the state to which the child has been taken. So the point isn’t that a family might not be able to go and live elsewhere, but to ensure either that both parents agree to a relocation, or if the parents cannot agree, that any court application necessary to seek permission to relocate is made in the child’s home state.

In the 1980s, there were fewer than 20 countries or legal states signed to the Abduction Convention. Today, the number stands at 101, the most recent to sign being Barbados in 2019. Members include the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan and South Africa, to name but a few. In 2017, analysis undertaken by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children showed that, across the network of member countries and states, there were a total of 2,652 applications made between the Central Authorities seeking the return of children who had been allegedly wrongfully removed, with a good success rate in terms of securing a child’s return.

And so it can be seen that, over the decades, the Abduction Convention has provided an invaluable network to help secure the return of children who find themselves in another state unlawfully. Here’s to T. Bradbrooke Smith, the Canadian expert who made the original proposal for a Convention of this nature and who has a legacy of reuniting many children with their parents with far greater cooperation than might otherwise have been the case!

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