Back in September, when Lord Justice Wall gave a speech to Families Need Fathers, his view of separation as a “serious failure of parenting” attracted headlines. I would like to draw attention to a lengthy but little reported part of his speech, which concerned one of the most heartrending areas of family law: when parents divorce and one parent decides to begin a new life overseas with the children.
Lord Justice Wall dwelt upon the state of current law, the approach of the judiciary to such case and in particular, the case of Payne v Payne (2001). The full text is here. Payne v Payne, in which permission was given for a divorced mother to move back to New Zealand with her daughter, against the wishes of the young girl’s father, is regarded as the leading case on the subject.
As he pointed out, the Payne v Payne decision takes into account as an important factor the potential harm that could have been caused to the mother if leave to remove the child had been refused, and the consequential impact on the child in determining the test of the interests of the child’s welfare:
The mother’s reasons for her desire to return to New Zealand were appropriate and entirely understandable. Her situation in England was not a happy one. The judge found that the effect of her being forced to stay in England would be devastating. He found that her unhappiness, sense of isolation and depression would be exacerbated to a degree that could well be damaging to the child. The father who has had a close relationship with his daughter would be able to afford to visit her or have her visit him two or three times a year which mitigated the loss to the child and to him. (Payne v Payne  EWCA Civ 166.)
Not surprisingly, critics take the view that this is incorrect and that children’s interests are better served if they have two parents to raise them.
As family lawyers, we urge our clients to put their children’s welfare above all else – and that is as it should be. However I would like to take a look at the parents’ welfare – which is not so much displaced at present, as utterly ignored. Instead the parents’ welfare is considered indirectly, and the impact assessed on the child or children. This in itself is difficult to do: experts agree that the impact of relocation and the resiliency of a child to adjust to relocation is difficult to ascertain, and I would assume that it depends greatly on each child and his or her circumstances.
An application for leave to remove
When an application for leave to remove a child is made, the court must decide which option is in the best interests of the child, on the basis that the child’s welfare is paramount. There is a welfare checklist, which the judge must take into account. The approach of the court in giving appropriate weight to each of the criteria is critical. Thus, if one parent can no longer play an active part in a child’s life by virtue of distance, the court needs to attach weight to it. But how much weight? Is the presence of two parents playing a constant role in a child’s life, of such paramount importance that it outweighs every other factor?
And so the question can simply become: “Should a child ever be permitted to leave the jurisdiction at all, if he or she thereby loses an enduring relationship with one parent?”
In Payne v Payne, the court decided that the arrangements for contact with the father were satisfactory and ordered, in accordance with section 13 of the Children Act 1989, the removal of the four-year-old child to New Zealand to live with her mother. The court found there was no breach of human rights legislation as a consequence.
The case of Re H (2010)
In one recent case, heard by the Court of Appeal on 20 May 2010, permission was similarly given for a mother to relocate to Australia with a child. The desperate father appealed to the Court of Appeal on the basis that the original judgment was only four pages long. He argued that the judge failed to fulfil the minimum requirement of providing explanations to the parents, covering all the section 13 considerations and the weight that had been attached to each.
The Court of Appeal dismissed his appeal. It held that the judge was not obliged to go through the checklist, each in turn.
It should be noted that not all applications for leave to remove a child are granted. In another recent case, applying the same factors, the swashbuckling Mr Justice Mostyn refused to permit the relocation of a French mother and her child to France – but am I alone in thinking that he could have been powerfully affected in his decision because he is a father himself?
What about the parents’ needs?
From my perspective as a parent, losing a child halfway round the world must be the equivalent of a lifelong dagger in the heart. The carefully built nest is tipped upside down and is left starkly empty. There is little prospect of it ever again being filled with the laughter and tears of a child. The parents undertook to raise the child together, but instead the child will grow up far away, with only one parent instead of two.
Can that ever be in the best interests of a child? Is it in the interests of both parents? Can it really be said that the interests of a child are not taking precedence to the interests of the parent who is moving away?
The answer that most of us would give to that last question is probably “no”. Sir Bob Geldof and his band of followers are calling vocally for a change to the law which they describe as “state sanctioned kidnap”. They call as parents, anxious to protect themselves from being deprived of the right to be parents.
Payne v Payne revisited
Then I wonder: from another perspective, is Payne really so wrong?
This blog is read by many desperate Englishwomen (and men) living around the world. They contact me and keep in touch because I am an English lawyer who may be able to offer them some assistance out of their misery. I have read heartbreaking stories of the circumstances in which they have found themselves. They fell in love, married and ended up living abroad, following their spouse’s career, nationality or simply the offer of a new life in a new country. Caught up in their hopes and dreams, they never gave a thought to what might happen if the marriage ended.
I am often contacted after a marriage has broken down and a mother finds that she is unable to return to her homeland with the children, because her husband refuses and she can’t leave their current home without a court’s consent. It is often near on impossible because elsewhere in the world, many courts point blank refuse permission for “their” children to leave the jurisdiction.
So these mothers are forced to stay, often without spousal support forced to live without a partner in a hostile environment. Living in misery, they suffer acute emotional and financial harm. Can that also be in the best interests of their children?
Should they and their children be obliged to continue to live in such circumstances? These women left the UK in ignorance of a future legal position that they had no idea could or would ever apply to them. But it does, and increasingly so. (As an aside, the number of child abductions from one country to another is growing and this, I believe, is why.)
So I can see both sides of the coin, having heard from various parents who have been caught up in this agonising dilemma.
Where do we go from here?
Perhaps a more pragmatic, conciliatory view is one way forward. For example, Stowe Family Law’s International Department recently had a case in which a child went to live with our client in a faraway country. There had been bitter battles, but I am pleased to say that following careful discussions and a hearing in a local English court, the situation was resolved. (Earlier this year the case of AP v TD (2010) was also heard in an English court. This case concerned a mother who had relocated to Canada with two children. She had applied to the Canadian court in a bid to alter contact arrangements with the children’s English father, but the case was heard in England.) Even the most intractable disputes, involving great distances and time zones, are capable of settling.
In the meantime, what of these “difficult” cases? Should we condemn a parent to lead a life of misery in a foreign country, or give up any prospects of happiness altogether following the breakdown of a marriage?
The approach in Payne is now under attack from campaign groups and high profile individuals. As with so much in family law, however, there is no perfect solution.
At present, those who have to judge these cases shine a spotlight upon the child, working through the welfare checklist and examining each parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs. But if a child’s happiness is entwined with that of its parents, as the judgment in Payne v Payne would have it, wouldn’t everyone benefit if the family’s needs were given more prominence than they are currently? Perhaps it is time to bring the parents out of the shadows.