Earlier today, I returned to the ITV This Morning studios, to discuss the latest twist in Madonna’s struggle with ex-husband Guy Ritchie over the future of their now teenage son Rocco. He has announced that he wishes to stay in England with his father.
Presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby asked me for my thoughts after a High Court judge urged the famous couple to come to an “amicable resolution” .
The pop superstar and her filmmaker ex-husband have been involved in legal proceedings since their 15 year-old son Rocco visited his father in London last year. At the end of his visit he refused to return to his mother in the United States. In response, Madonna launched a legal bid to get him back. Then, in February this year, the Court made Rocco himself a party to the ongoing proceedings because of his age and maturity. He was adamant in his refusal to go back, preferring to stay with his father. He has made his views known not only in the English courts but also in the United States where he also has lawyers.
Unsurprisingly, the case has received a lot of attention from the national media. However, regular readers of this blog will know that international disputes involving children are sadly rather commonplace. Mr Justice MacDonald said as much at the Royal Courts of Justice. When all of the celebrity aspects have been stripped away, the central issue was “born out of circumstances that arise for countless separated parents the world over”.
The judge added that the courtroom “should always be the option of very last resort when parents cannot agree matters in respect of their children” because while it may offer the means to resolve such disputes, it was “a blunt instrument when compared to the nuanced virtues of calm discussion and considered compromise between those involved”.
He pleaded with the parents to “find an amicable resolution to the dispute between them”. It would be a “very great tragedy” if any more of the “precious and fast receding days of [Rocco’s] childhood were to be taken up by this dispute”, Mr Justice MacDonald said.
The comments came in a judgment in response to Madonna’s application to withdraw her application for Rocco’s return under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The High Court had to decide if the Family Procedure Rules (FPR) 2010 applied to Hague Convention cases. Rule 29 of the FPR states that in family law cases, “an application may only be withdrawn with the permission of the court”.
Whilst not opposing the withdrawal, both father and son sought further directions from the court in the event that Madonna chooses to apply to the English courts again. Suppose for example the US court ordered his return and he again refused to go. Mr Justice MacDonald granted her application to withdraw because compelling her to continue with these proceedings “would not serve the ends of justice”. He said that as the case was also being heard in a New York court, continuing them in England would create “unnecessary and unhelpful complexity” which would make a resolution more difficult. He added that he thought no further orders would be necessary except the return of Rocco’s passport which would allow him to travel at Easter. The judge warned Madonna’s lawyers that any further application should be made on notice and should be heard by him.
As to the correct court to hear this case, for the time being that remains the one in New York where this sorry raft of proceedings began. However, I note on behalf of Rocco his position as to jurisdiction was reserved, and his habitual residence in England is not yet conceded. So that remains a defence for him to argue should the New York judge decide he should return to the US.
But so far it seems that the New York judge hearing the case is pretty much commenting in line with what is happening on the ground in England. She has declined to issue a warrant for the arrest of Guy Ritchie and has not ordered Rocco to be removed from his English school.
Yesterday, I spoke to a top New York based lawyer about the case on the other side of the Atlantic She told me their system, like ours, is based on the best interests of the child. We call it the ‘Welfare Test’ – the best interests of the child are the courts’ paramount concern. She said that what he wants will carry greater weight the older and more mature he is.
As I said the last time I was asked about this case, this dreadful case really should not be decided in front of a judge. With that in mind, it is good to see the English side of proceedings come to an end albeit only for the time being. Rocco has told judges both here and in New York that the last thing he wants is further litigation in any court.
But I’m not sure I would put money on it not coming back – it still might if the Judge decides Rocco should go back to the States to finish school. How that would work in practice could well be a nightmare prison sentence to a mature teenager who has determined he does not wish to return. It could be that Rocco might even end up becoming a Ward of Court over here and the court effectively takes custody until he is 18.
Parents, famous and non-famous parents, who may also be going through similar situations, must give teenagers a little leeway. They are full of hormones and in the process of maturing. Coming down too hard on them may cause more problems, so a calm and sensible approach is always best, however distraught the parents themselves may be feeling.
The High Court judgment is available in full online. Read it here.