In a recent e-mail exchange, Paul Beaumont and Jayne Holliday (both working now at the University of Stirling) drew my attention to Article 14 of the Hague Convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction. The provision is certainly a rarity in the field of ascertaining and applying foreign law, and of recognition. It reads as follows
In ascertaining whether there has been a wrongful removal or retention within the meaning of Article 3, the judicial or administrative authorities of the requested State may take notice directly of the law of, and of judicial or administrative decisions, formally recognised or not in the State of the habitual residence of the child, without recourse to the specific procedures for the proof of that law or for the recognition of foreign decisions which would otherwise be applicable.
The logic of Article 14 appears to be twofold. It is first and foremost a practical rule: it should lead to speedy decisions on the return of a child, which are fundamental to the working of the Convention.
Its second rationale seems to be dogmatic. According to the Convention’s explanatory report by Elisa Pérez-Vera, at para 119, Article 14 does not address cases of application of foreign law in the narrow sense; it rather “takes it into account” to check whether the claim of wrongful removal is correct:
Since the wrongful nature of a child’s removal is made to depend, in terms of the Convention, on its having occurred as the result of a breach of the actual exercise of custody rights conferred by the law of the child’s habitual residence, it is clear that the authorities of the requested State will have to take this law into consideration when deciding whether the child should be returned. In this sense, the provision in article 13 of the preliminary draft Convention that the authorities ‘shall have regard to’ the law of the child’s habitual residence, could be regarded as superfluous. However, such a provision would on the one hand underline the fact that there is no question of applying that law, but merely of using it as a means of evaluating the conduct of the parties (…)” (emphasis added)
In a similar vein, judicial or administrative decisions on custody rights, the breach of which entails the wrongfulness of the removal (or of the retention, as the case may be), are not really recognized, but work as a piece of proof in the proceedings at the requested State:
… while on the other hand, in so far as it applied to decisions which could underlie the custody rights that had been breached, it would make the Convention appear to be a sort of lex specialis, according to which those decisions would receive effect indirectly in the requested State, an effect which would not be made conditional on the obtaining of an exequatur or any other method of recognition of foreign judgments.
There is no way to dispute the usefulness of Article 14 in practice. I have more doubts regarding the correctness of the conceptual distinction between “applying” a foreign law and “taking [it] into account” (which is usually understood as taking into account “as a matter of act”). The operations are possibly the same in nature; the difference between them, just a question of degree. Furthermore, I believe that in the context of Article 14 foreign law is actually applied. The conduct of the parties cannot be evaluated without looking into what that law prescribes; the authority in the requested State draws the corresponding consequences as to who is the holder of the rights of custody in the case at hand. The assessment of the parties’ conduct comes afterwards. In the same vein, I believe that a decision on custody rights is recognized, in the proper sense of the term, as a decision, and not as a piece of documentary evidence.
What makes the difference is therefore not “what is done” with the foreign law/foreign decision in the context of child abduction. It is rather the limited goal of the application of that law, and of the recognition of the foreign decision, which allows to proceed without resorting to the specific procedures for the proof of foreign law (or for the recognition of foreign decisions), which would normally apply.
Be it as it may, what really matters is what the alternative method – that of taking notice directly of the law of, and of judicial or administrative decisions, of the State of habitual residence of the child before removal or retention- means vis-à-vis quality. That foreign law is not, strictly speaking, applied, does not entail a lesser need for certainty about its contents. The authority in the requested State does indeed not determine the rights of custody. However, her understanding of the foreign legal system is not innocuous: it has immediate effects on the child in terms of return/not return, and therefore, of residence; these, in turn, affect the question of international jurisdiction for a claim on the merits. Furthermore, the view of the requested authority on the custody issue sets a precedent (in a non-technical sense, for it is not binding) for future discussions about parental responsibility.
The assumption that Article 14 supports lower standards of proof of the foreign law (and more lenient conditions of recognition) is only this: an assumption. To date, INCADAT lists 39 national decisions on the provision. In fact, in some of them Article 14 is simply mentioned . The remaining decisions have been rendered in different jurisdictions (Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, US, Switzerland): the sample is hence not good enough for a study aimed at finding out the differences with the usual methods to ascertain foreign law, nor to make any assessment about quality.
Still, it might not be a useless effort. For, if Article 14 proves to work, it may be worth trying it elsewhere (the suggestion, with a question mark, is actually from Professor Beaumont).