Supreme Court judgment on the application of the 1996 Hague Convention

Supreme Court judgment on the application of the 1996 Hague Convention

The Supreme Court has handed down its judgment in In the matter of J (a child) [2015] UKSC 70 (on appeal from [2015] EWCA Civ 329). The appeal concerned the application of the 1996 Hague Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-operation in respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children (‘the 1996 Convention’); in particular the scope of the jurisdiction conferred by article 11 in ‘all cases of urgency’ on a contracting state where a child is present but not habitually resident.


The 1996 Convention came into force in the United Kingdom on 1 November 2012 and has not previously been considered by the Supreme Court. The subject of the proceedings is a child born in January 2007. His parents are both from Morocco and hold Moroccan and British citizenship. The parents lived in England when the child was born but moved first to Saudi Arabia in 2009 and then to Morocco in 2011. The marriage broke down in December 2011. The child lived with his mother, who was granted residential custody by the local family court in 2012. His father was granted and exercised visiting rights. The mother moved to England in January 2013 but the child remained in the care of his maternal grandparents until 14 September 2013, when the mother brought him to England. Since then the child has lived here with her and her new husband, whom she married in January 2013 and with whom she now has another child. The father has had no face-to-face contact with the child since.

The father applied on 23 September 2013 to the Moroccan Family Court for an order granting him residential custody but this was refused on 16 January 2014. On 14 March 2014 the father brought proceedings in the High Court seeking an order that the child be made a ward of court and for directions for his summary return to Morocco. The judge found that the father had not consented to the removal from Morocco, which was wrongful, and that the child had been habitually resident in Morocco before his removal. An order was made for the mother to return the child to Morocco. It was not argued before the High Court that the effect of the 1996 Convention was that he had no jurisdiction to make the order he did.

The mother appealed to the Court of Appeal, which held that the English courts did not have jurisdiction under the 1996 Convention, or on any other basis, on the facts of this case. In cases where a child was habitually resident in another state, as in this case, jurisdiction only arises in cases of urgency under article 11. This was not such a case because the father could have made an immediate application to the Moroccan court for a return order.

Supreme Court judgment

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal, holding that it is open to the English courts to exercise the article 11 jurisdiction in cases of wrongful removal under the 1996 Convention, and ordered that the case be returned to the High Court for a decision as to whether it is appropriate to do so in the circumstances of this case. Lady Hale, with whom the other justices all agreed, gave the only substantive judgment.

The Supreme Court's reasons are:

  • The focus of the 1996 Convention is on the care and upbringing of the child and an order for the return of a child to the country of his or her habitual residence is a ‘measure of protection’ falling within its scope [see para 23]. Jurisdiction in wrongful removal cases remains with the authorities of the contracting state in which the child was habitually resident immediately before the removal (article 7) and article 11 supplies an additional jurisdiction to the courts of the territory where the child is present in the limited circumstances of ‘cases of urgency’ [para 26]. An order made under article 11 can have extra-territorial effect and can thus be contrasted with the purely ancillary power in article 20 of the Brussels II Revised Regulation [paras 26-29]. It is not limited to cases of wrongful removal but extends to safeguarding children who are lawfully present in another country [para 30]. It can secure a valuable ‘soft landing’ for children whose return to their home country is ordered under the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (‘the 1980 Convention’) [para 31]. It would place these objectives in jeopardy if the courts could not invoke the article 11 jurisdiction without first assuring themselves that it was impossible for the courts of the home jurisdiction to take action [para 32].
  • In the absence of this pre-condition, the interpretation of article 11 demands a holistic approach. It is consistent with the overall purpose of the 1996 Convention that measures of protection which the child needs now should not be delayed, provided they are in support of rather than in opposition to the jurisdiction of the home country. It is a secondary, not the primary jurisdiction [paras 33-34]. Although this approach does not emerge from either the Explanatory Report of Paul Lagarde in 1996 or from the Practical Handbook on the operation of the 1996 Convention, they should not be treated as if they were words in the Convention, and the focus of both is orders in the context of proceedings for abduction governed by the 1980 Convention, rather than cases to which the 1980 Convention does not apply [para 39].
  • An abduction case governed solely by the 1996 Convention is not invariably one of ‘urgency’ but it is difficult to envisage a case in which the court should not consider it to be so and go on to consider whether it is appropriate to exercise the article 11 jurisdiction. The courts of the country where the child is present are often better placed to make orders about the child’s return, as they can take steps to locate the child and exert any necessary coercive powers. The machinery of obtaining and then enforcing orders made by the home country may be cumbersome and slow. The child’s interests may be compromised if the country where he or she is present is not able to take effective action in support of their return [para 39].

Accordingly the appeal was allowed but rather than simply restore the judge’s order for return, the Supreme Court directed that the case should be returned to the judge for a new decision approached on the proper footing, namely whether the English court should exercise the jurisdiction conferred by article 11 of the 1996 Convention and, if so, in what way. That question will be answered on the basis of up-to-date information about the child and, if necessary, about Moroccan law, with attention also to be given to the question of whether an order for interim contact between the child and his father should be made [paras 41-44].

Geraldine Morris is a solicitor and Head of LexisPSL Family.

Twitter: @GeraldineMorris

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About the author:

Geraldine is Head of LexisPSL Family. She was admitted as a solicitor in 1992 and was in practice for 15 years, most recently as a partner and head of the family team at Hart Brown, a large Surrey firm.

Geraldine writes for Butterworths Family Law Service and is a past editor of the Resolution Review. She has been published in the New Law Journal, the Law Society Gazette and the District Judges’ Bulletin as well as in the national press including the Times and the Telegraph.

When in practice she was a member of the Law Society Family and Children Panels, and an accredited Resolution Specialist with a focus on advanced financial provision and pensions. A past Resolution regional secretary and press officer, Geraldine also contributed chapters to the Resolution publications, International Aspects of Family Law (3rd Edition 2009) and The Modern Family (2012).