The English courts do hold jurisdiction over the case of two young sisters who arrived at Heathrow Airport from West Africa in the company of an unidentified woman.
In Re M Children (Jurisdiction), the London Borough of Hillingdon began care proceedings for the girls, aged seven and five, who had flown in from Ghana in May. They were taken straight into foster care on arrival.
The sisters were actually British citizens, having been taken away from their “inconsistent” mother in 2014 and sent to live with their father in the West African nation. But this year he unexpectedly sent them back to the UK, in the company of an “unknown adult female”.
Since the sisters’ arrival in foster care, they have in touch with their father and had one supervised visit from their mother, who now lives backin Ghana herself.
Ask to explain why he had sent his daughters back to the UK on their own, the father gave conflicting accounts. Initially he claimed it had been only to renew their passports, visit family and go sightseeing. Later however he claimed he had actually sent them back to avoid political instability in Ghana. He planned for them to live with his stepdaughter here, he explained.
However ,she has since told social workers that she cannot look after the girls after all and claimed that the father had actually planned to send them to live with an aunt by marriage.
Before long-term decisions could be made about the sisters’ future, Her Honour Judge Rowe QC was asked to consider whether or not the English courts still held jurisdiction, given the previous decision to send the girls to live with their father in Ghana.
Sitting in the West London Family Court, she explained the issue revolved around the girls’ ‘habitual residence’ – their usual place of residence for legal purposes. In 2014, this had become Ghana despite their British citizenship. Their father claimed that it had since become the UK once more, but the legal guardian and local authority both doubted this, arguing that they had only been back in the UK for less than a month when the issue had first come to court. The sisters had been in foster care, without family members ready to care for them, ever since and now faced an uncertain future.
Judge Rowe agreed, concluding that, under Article 13 of EU regulation Brussels II, the English courts did hold jurisdiction despite the girls’ lack of a clear habitual residence in the UK. Article 13 states that:
“Where a child’s habitual residence cannot be established and jurisdiction cannot be determined … the courts of the Member State where the child is present shall have jurisdiction.”
Read the full ruling here.