South Africa is a party state of the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International child abduction. South Africa ratified the convention in 1996 and it came in operation on 1 October 1997. Emphasis is placed on securing the prompt return of any child wrongfully removed to or retained in a contracting state.
The Hague Convention is a treaty designed to expedite the return of children back to their country of habitual residence, in cases where they have been wrongfully removed. Habitual residence sometimes differs from citizenship and nationality. The Hague convention aims to curb the international abductions of children by providing additional remedies to those seeking the return of the child were a child has been wrongfully removed or retained. It provides a simplified procedure for seeking the return of the child to his/her country of habitual residence.
The purpose for of the speedy return is to place the child in the jurisdiction of a court that is best appraised to deal with the merits of the parental dispute. A child removed from one parent and taken to a country different from that in which the child was habitually resident is then likely to be subject to the concentrated influence of the custodial parents. Unless firm steps are taken to ensure the prompt implementation of the Convention procedures, in a prolonged separation from a parent his or her influence on the child would have a tendency to wane. Time would favour the abductor. The parent remaining in the place of the child’s habitual residence, from which the child is taken, would ordinarily be at a considerable disadvantage in litigating a contested claim for custody and access (or equivalent orders) in the courts of another country rather than those of the place of habitual residence.
Few persons can readily afford litigation in their own jurisdiction, still less contemplate the prospect of participating in courts (or administrative authorities) far away, where the legal system may be different, laws and even language unfamiliar, costs substantial and facilities for legal assistance difficult to obtain or non-existent.
The removal or the retention of a child is to be considered wrongful where -
a) it is in breach of rights of custody attributed to a person, an institution or any other body, either jointly or alone, under the law of the State in which the child was habitually resident immediately before the removal or retention, and
b) at the time of removal or retention those rights were actually exercised, either jointly or alone, or would have been so exercised but for the removal or retention.
The rights of custody mentioned in (a) above, may arise in particular by operation of law or by reason of judicial or administrative, or by reason of an agreement having legal affect under the law of that State. The Convention shall apply to any child who was habitually resident in a contracting State immediately before any breach of custody or access rights.
Where a child has been wrongfully retained and, at the date of the commencement of the proceedings before the judicial or administrative authority of the contracting State where the child is, a period of less than one (1) year has elapsed from the date of the wrongful removal of retention, the authority concerned shall order the return of the child forthwith.
In practice, applications are generally heard on an urgent basis or semi-urgent basis by way of notice of motion proceedings. Inevitably, the overriding principle that our courts have regard to is the best interest of the child principle. In South African law the right to consent or refuse the removal of the child from South Africa is entrenched in the concept of guardianship. In terms of section 18 (2)(c) of the Children’s Act, 38 of 2005), a person who has parental responsibilities and rights in respect of a child has the right to act as guardian of the child. In terms of section 18 (3)(c)(iii) of the Act a guardian must consent to the child’s departure or removal from South Africa and where more than one person on has guardianship over a child all of them must consent before the child can be removed.
The role of the Central Authority
A contracting state is bound to set up an administrative body known as a “Central Authority”, which has the duty to trace the child and to take steps to secure a child’s return. In South Africa the Chief Family Advocate is designated as Central Authority.
The Central Authority assists in both “outgoing” cases (when a child has been wrongfully taken from South Africa to a foreign country or retained in a foreign country, as well as “incoming” cases (when a child has been wrongfully brought to, or retained in South Africa). A party may submit an application for the return of a child, or access to a child to the Central Authority.
What does habitual residence mean?
This concept is not defined by the Convention itself. It has been interpreted according to “the ordinary and natural meaning of the two words it contains, as a question of fact, to be decided by reference to all the circumstances of any particular case” The intention thereby is to avoid the development of restrictive rules as to the meaning of habitual residence, so that the facts and circumstances of each can be assessed free of presuppositions and presumptions. However, the fact that there is no “objective temporal baseline” on which to base a definition of habitual residence requires that close attention be paid to the subjective intent when evaluating an individual’s habitual residence. When a child is removed from its habitual environment, the implication is that it is being removed from the family and social environment in which its life has developed, The word “habitual’ implies a stable territorial link, which may be achieved through length of stay, or through evidence of a particularly close tie between the person and the place. A number of reported foreign judgements have established that the possible prerequisite for “habitual residence” is some “degree of settled purpose” or “intention”. A settled intention or settled purpose is clearly one which will not be temporary.
What can South African parents do when a former spouse or partner has abducted a child and taken them abroad?
Establish the details of the departure and destination of the abducting parent and/or the child. The left behind parent has an option of approaching the office of the designated Central Authority for the Republic of South Africa, which is the office of the Chief Family Advocate or the Central Authority of the country where the child has been abducted to. The abducted child must be below 16 years of age. In order to facilitate the processing of the application in the office of the Chief Family Advocate, the left behind parent furnish the following documents:
• Original or certified copies of setting out care and contact (custody) and/or guardianship rights. Examples of these are marriage certificate, court orders granting the alleged rights, unabridged birth certificates, parenting plan or parental rights and responsibilities agreement etc;
• Recent photographs of the abductor as well as the child;
• A detailed sworn statement setting out the exact facts and circumstances that led to the alleged abduction;
• Copies of all pleadings filed in pending litigation in South African courts, where applicable.
If the parent who has taken a child overseas feel that the left behind parent in South Africa is abusive, a danger to the child or cannot provide adequate care for the child, can the parent defend his/her actions, in terms the Hague Convention and SA Children’s Act?
The Hague Convention makes provision for the abducting parent to oppose the application for return of the child. When there is a grave risk that the return of the child will expose the child to physical, psychological harm, or would place the child in intolerable situation, then the court hearing the application is not bound to order the return of the child. Mere allegations of grave risk will not persuade a court to refuse the return; it must be shown that the risk is a serious or that the envisaged harm is of significant proportion.
What countries are subscribed to the Hague Convention?
Most European and Commonwealth countries and the USA are members. On the African continent, only South Africa, Mauritius and Zimbabwe subscribed to the convention. When a child is removed to another country that is not a party state to the convention, the South African High Court, as the upper Guardian of the minor children, will have jurisdiction and the application should be made to such a court for the return of the child.
What are the steps to be taken in recovering an abducted child, in terms of the Hague Convention and SA Children’s Act?
The South African Central Authority (CA) must immediately after receipt of the necessary documents consider the legal aspects of the request as well as the Convention status of the country to which the child has been taken.
If the child has been taken to a contracting country and all legalities have been satisfied, the CA will compile a bundle and forward the application to the foreign CA, requesting prompt return of the child. The procedure does not apply where a child has been taken to a non-Convention country. All CA’s are required by the Convention to take steps to obtain a voluntary return of the child. This is done through cross-border mediation. Litigation is resorted to in the event that the mediation fails. This approach is also consistent with the general principles set out in the Children’s Act, namely, that in any matter concerning a child ‘an approach which is conducive to conciliation and problem-solving should be followed’.
It is however, important that the left-behind parent alert the Central Authority to the possibility of further movement/possible harm to the child, should the abducting parent know of the application for return. In such cases the CA will take steps to obtain an urgent court order to prevent further movement of, or possible harm to the child.
How does the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction relate to care and contact (custody) rulings made in South African civil courts?
An order granting care and contact can be used as proof of the existence of parental rights by the parent seeking return of the abducted child. Where an abductor seeks an order in the South African court, which will have an effect of ratifying the wrongfulness of the removal or retention of the child in South Africa the CA will invoke article 16 of the Convention to stop or suspend the proceedings until a decision has been made on the return of the child to his/her country of habitual residence. The judicial authorities/courts of a contracting state to which a child has been taken or retained are required by the Convention not decide on the merits of custody rights until a determination has been made that the child will not be returned.
There are limitations to the treaty’s application, in that the Convention applies only between countries that have adopted it as “Contracting States.” What are the procedures for recovering a child from a non-Contracting State?
From a South African perspective, it is advisable that the left behind parent obtain an order through the normal civil procedures, which declare the removal/retention of the child unlawful and a breach of their parental rights. Once such an order has been obtained, the left behind parent must obtain a mirror order or an order for enforcement in the foreign jurisdiction which also orders return of the child. This route is very expensive as it involves the instruction of lawyers in foreign countries. For this reason, the Hague Conference on Private International Law is taking steps to encourage other countries to consider contracting under this Convention.
Are there time frames that apply under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction?
Among the most popular defences that have been raised in return applications is that the child objects to the return. In such instances, an assessment must be made, usually through the assistance of a Family Counsellor or psychologist, whether the child possesses sufficient maturity to form a viewpoint that the court may consider. The child’s reasons for the objection will also be examined in order to exclude possible influence by the abducting parent.
Some of the defences available are that the removal was not wrongful, that the left behind parent was not exercising his/her parental rights at the time of removal or retention, or that the left behind parent had agreed or subsequently acquiesced to the removal/retention:
Where available evidence indicates that the child has become settled in the new environment the court may not necessarily order a return. In cases where a child’s return would be contrary to the South Africa’s fundamental principles relating to protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, our courts are also under no obligation to order the return of the child.
A court may withhold permission to return the child for the following reasons:
- that the child is above the age of 16 years and therefore not covered by the Convention.
- If a child has been wrongfully removed for less than one year, the child’s removal is to be ordered forthwith under the Convention. The Convention makes it mandatory for the judicial authority to order return.
- If a child has been wrongfully removed for more than one year, the child should still be returned but an exception is allowed -a court may choose not to return the child if there is evidence that the child is settled in his/her new environment. The court has discretion to order/refuse the return.
- Courts and administrative authorities should act quickly in such cases but if one has not reached a decision within six weeks from the date proceedings commenced, an applicant or the Central Authority of the requested State may officially request a reason for the delay.
- The Convention only applies to wrongful removals/retentions occurring after the treaty became effective between the involved countries.
- The Convention requires that countries act without delay in child abduction cases that fall within its parameters. It is one of the objectives of the Convention to protect children internationally from the harmful effects of wrongful removal or retention and to establish procedures of ensuring prompt return of children to their country of habitual residence. The aim is to ensure that a competent court in the country of habitual residence decide on the merits of custody, access and even permanent removal to another country. This is based on the premise that court in the country of habitual residence is better apprised to obtain all relevant evidence regarding the merits of custody, care and contact and in a better position to grant an order that will be in the best interests of and/or least detrimental to the welfare of the child. For this reason, the Hague Convention is deemed to be consistent with our applicable laws and the Constitution, through affording the best interests of the child paramount importance.
Family Law Attorney
Abrahams and Gross Inc. Cape Town