Courts make it too easy for mothers to take children abroad, say family lawyers

30 Sep 2005

At a Resolution debate in London last night (29 September), 7 out of 10 family lawyers backed the view that the courts are getting things wrong by making it too easy for separated parents - usually mothers - to gain permission to take children to live in another country.

In the debate chaired by leading family judge, Mr Justice Wilson, Dr Mark Berelowitz and Stephen Cobb QC argued for the motion that it is too easy to get the court’s permission to move children abroad and James Turner QC and Resolution’s Carolynn Usher argued against.

Arguing in favour of the motion, Stephen Cobb QC said: “the critical importance of the role of the non-resident parent (usually the father) in the child’s life is widely promoted in the courts but it is not given sufficient weight in these cases. Too much emphasis is given to the distress a mother might feel if refused permission. Judicial sympathy is no consolation to the parent left behind”.

Dr Mark Berelowitz, a child & adolescent psychiatrist at the Royal Free Hospital in London said: “for a good parenting relationship between father and child, he must be more than a Disneyland Dad - the quality of the relationship is usually poor when the distance between the two is huge. Most families assume that the courts will grant an application but the threshold must be higher to give a child a chance of a good relationship with his/her father left behind”.

Putting the opposite view, James Turner QC stressed the importance of freedom of movement, especially when applied to a mother who wishes to return her home country. He posed the questions: “what is wrong with a mother’s wish to get on with her life after a failed relationship? The child’s welfare is the paramount consideration but not the only one - why should the child’s interests come first?”

Also stressing that travel between countries is a normal part of everyday life, Carolynn Usher said: “most child abduction cases arise when the primary carer of the child returns home, often completely unaware that they are doing anything wrong until proceedings under the Hague convention are started. If our approach to granting permission was tightened, there would be more abductions”. She went on to say that unrestricted movement from country to country is fundamental to our concept of freedom. Court restrictions are equivalent to “impounding the child”.

At the end of the evening the audience of 106 family lawyers voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion with 73% agreeing that permission to remove a child from the country is granted too easily.

Resolution Children Committee Chair, Yvonne Brown, said: “we decided to host this important debate to draw the arguments into the open. We know that people feel very passionately about the issues. There are no simple solutions but we want to have a broad debate on whether we are doing the best we can for the families who need to resolve these disputes through the courts”.