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Desperation and parental abduction – some answers!

Have you been following the gay marriage storyline in Hollyoaks? This popular Channel 4 soap opera has built up a substantial fan base in the 17 years since it was first aired.

Set in a fictional suburb of Chester, Hollyoaks is aimed at a younger audience than sopay stalwarts like EastEnders or my own personal favourite, Coronation Street.  Like any soap, it strives to reflect the lives of its audience, albeit with lashings of dramatic licence. And last night’s episode certainly took a turn for the topical!

Gay couple Ste and Doug are in a civil partnership and look after a little girl called Leah, who is the daughter of Ste’s former girlfriend Amy. Now’s Leah’s father Billy has turned up as well and vowed to regain custody of his daughter. The episode ended with a desperate Ste and Doug plotting to run away to the US with Leah to escape Billy.

We might quibble about the emotional and legal details of this storyline but you’ve got to admire its topicality. Not only is gay marriage a headline-generating issue at present, but recent figures from the Foreign Office reveal that ever greater numbers of parents and guardians are fleeing abroad with their children: almost 90 per cent more in the last ten years. The Foreign Office has now launched a campaign designed to raise awareness amongst parents of the possible consequences of abducting their child.

Eighty-eight per cent is a stark and shocking figure but perhaps it simply reflects a cosmopolitan world in which many more of us than used to be the case meet and marry partners from foreign countries.

Here at Stowe Family Law, we have helped many parents to navigate their way through these emotionally-wrenching and stressful situations. As regular readers will know, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction is a frequent topic on the blog. There can be no doubt that this international agreement goes a long way towards simplifying and accelerating the difficult process of returning a child to his or her home country.

What has always stood out for me in child abduction cases is the desperation you so frequently find on both sides. There is the anxious desperation of the mother or father doing their utmost to try to track and track down the children who have been so suddenly torn from them, and on the other hand there is the misguided desperation of the parent on the run. Child abduction is illegal and quite rightly so. But I also think it is fair to say that many fleeing parents are gripped by a fear that they may lose everything if they do not run. They may be ‘stuck mums’ longing to return home after a foreign marriage has gone sour or simply so bruised by a rancorous divorce that they cannot bear the thought of their ex-partner having anything to do with their children.

No doubt Hollyoaks fans are already debating possible outcomes for the Ste and Doug versus Billy story. Will they flee to the US, tackle Billy in the courts or will the story take another soapy twist?
How about taking some legal advice? Were Ste and Doug to do so, they might be advised as follows:-

  1. Parental Responsibility of Leah is at the moment with Amy, the unmarried mother who has disappeared and can’t be found.
  2. If Leah was born after 1 December 2003 and Billy signed her birth certificate, then he has also automatically obtained parental responsibility for her. If he hasn’t signed the birth certificate, then he does not have it, unless there was an agreement between him and Amy, which would have been registered with the Principal Registry inLondon, or he had applied for a court order giving him parental responsibility. Both sound doubtful so it is most likely he does not yet have parental responsibility so he will have to apply for it and also for a residence order in his favour.
  3. Neither Ste nor Doug have parental responsibility and if they run off to theUSAwith Leah they will be committing a criminal offence and Leah will be returned to this country, and possibly even taken into care for the time being until a court decides her future.
  4. Ste and Doug should immediately apply for an interim and final residence order which will give them parental responsibility for Leah. They should consider applying for a prohibited steps order preventing Billy removing Leah from their care.
  5. They could also consider applying to become special guardians for Leah, which would give them enhanced rights. This applies in cases where adoption is not possible because the child has a strong relationship with her birth family. It is of course possible they could apply to adopt Leah given Amy’s disappearance and that Billy has suddenly turned up. The court has power to dispense with parental consent to an adoption.
  6. Finally, it is entirely possible in this case that the Court could make Leah a Ward of Court,  given the highly unusual circumstances of this case and then the Court would be fully responsible for where she lives, with whom and who has contact with her, until a long term plan has been agreed.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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