Case law Developments in PIL

International Adoption and the Domestic Allocation of Competences: Children at the Heart of the Political Controversy

According to a press release of the Spanish Constitutional Court, on 23 February 2021 the Plenary has partially ruled in favor of the Government of Catalonia (the Generalidad de Cataluña/Generalitat de Catalunya) and, consequently, declared unconstitutional part of the provisions of the Spanish Regulation on International Adoption approved by Royal Decree 165/2019 of 22 March 2019, implementing Law 54/2007 of 28 December 2007 on International Adoption.

Before the Constitutional Court, the Generalidad claimed that the Regulation infringed its statutory powers in the field of social services and the protection of minors. The Court has ruled that the State has indeed encroached on the powers of the Autonomous Communities in that field, in its international dimension. The reason is that the Regulation goes too much into the detail of the legal status of ‘accredited bodies’ and has entirely centralised, without recourse to cooperation mechanisms, a number of executive tasks such as the recognition, suspension and revocation of the accreditation of intermediary bodies, as well as the monitoring and control of the activity and some tasks related to the national registering of accredited bodies.

On the other hand, according to the Court, the State, in so far as it has jurisdiction over international relations, may conclude bilateral agreements to promote reciprocal relations with other States; establish the list of countries excluded from the regime of international adoption due to war, disaster and other serious reasons; and suspend as a precautionary measure adoptions in progress for these reasons.

Similarly, the State may entrust executive tasks corresponding to the regional institutions to a Sector  Conference such as the Delegate Committee on Social Services, composed of representatives of all the autonomous communities and cities. The Committee decides by consensus and, failing that, by majority, on the maximum number of international adoption files to be dealt with each year in relation to each country, and on their distribution between the Autonomous Communities and the accredited bodies. It also decides on the approval of the basic model contract for international adoptions.

In order to protect the best interests of minors, and having in mind as well the rights of the adopters, the effect of the judgement has been put off for one year from its publication. In this way, an immediate legislative vacuum adversely affecting minors -in particular those involved in international adoption proceedings initiated prior to the decision- is prevented. Additionally, the declarations of unconstitutionality and nullity contained in the decision ‘shall not affect consolidated legal situations such as those established by final administrative measures, or those which have been decided by a judgment having the force of res judicata’.

The ruling is accompanied by a dissenting vote from two Justices. In their view, the application should have been dismissed in its entirety since the Generalidad does not have the competence it claims – hence there is no possible trespassing on the side of the State. According to the magistrates, the Generalidad has no power to intervene in the extra-judicial phase of an international adoption taking place abroad. By contrast, it has competence for the protection of children who are in distress or at risk ; however, neither minors in other Autonomous Communities nor those in another State fall under its scope, even if they may be adopted by Catalans. The principle of territoriality makes it impossible to acknowledge Catalonia’s competence to protect minors residing abroad. Furthermore, adoptable minors abroad are not in a situation of risk or distress, since they reside in institutions who look after them.

All in all, a complicated political setting. Difficult to assess whether, in practice, it works in favor or against the main stakeholders : the children, the adopters, the families.

Senior research fellow MPI Luxembourg (on leave) Legal secretary at the CJEU Full Professor PIL, University of La Laguna (Spain)

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