On 24 March 2021 the Court of Justice issued a judgement in the case of SS v MCP, C-603/20 PPU, which concerns interpretation of the jurisdictional rules of Brussels II bis Regulation. The request for a preliminary ruling originated from the High Court of Justice (England & Wales), Family Division.
The Court decided that a court of a Member State seized of an action relating to parental responsibility cannot base its jurisdiction on Article 10 of the Brussels II bis Regulation in a case of abduction of a child to a third State.
Interestingly, the opinion (commented here by Geert Van Calster from the perspective of the principle of mutual trust) suggested the opposite conclusion, in spite of the fact that both the CJEU and the advocate general relied on the wording of the relevant provisions, their context and objectives, legislative history and relation with international instruments.
SS and MCP are two Indian citizens residing in the UK, where their child P was born in 2017. The couple is not legally married. SS is indicated as the father on the birth certificate, and consequently he has parental responsibility. In October 2018, the mother went to India with the child, where the child stayed with her grandmother. In August 2020 P submitted an application to the referring court, seeking an order for the return of the child to the UK and a ruling on rights of access.
The mother has challenged the jurisdiction of the court, since the child is not habitually resident in the UK. In the opinion of the referring court, the conduct of the mother probably amounts to the child’s wrongful removal (retention) in India. India is not a contracting party to the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention.
The referring court considers that it is necessary to determine whether it has jurisdiction on the basis of Brussels II bis (for its application in the UK for proceedings initiated before the end of transition period see: Note to Stakeholers on Brexit and PIL). Because the child does not have habitual residence in the UK and there is no consent of both parents as to jurisdiction of UK courts, the court has doubts whether it might base its jurisdiction on Article 10 Brussels II bis.
In accordance with this provision in case of a wrongful removal (retention), the courts of the Member State where the child was habitually resident immediately before the wrongful removal (retention) retain their jurisdiction until the child has acquired habitual residence in another Member State and one of alternative additional requirements is met. As the child was wrongfully retained in a third State, the referring court wonders whether Article 10 provides that UK courts retain their jurisdiction … indefinitely.
The CJEU answered strongly in the negative and underlined that:
(…) there is no justification for an interpretation of Article 10 [Brussels II bis] that would result in indefinite retention of jurisdiction in the Member State of origin in a case of child abduction to a third State, neither in the wording of that article, nor in its context, nor in the travaux préparatoires, nor in the objectives of that regulation. Such an interpretation would also deprive of effect the provisions of the 1996 Hague Convention in a case of child abduction to a third State which is a contracting party to that convention and would be contrary to the logic of the 1980 Hague Convention (paragraph 62).
As a result, the jurisdiction of the referring court might be determined in accordance with the applicable international conventions or, in the absence of any such international convention, in accordance with Article 14 Brussels II bis (which requires the presence of the child within the forum).
The Reasoning of the Court
First, the wording of Article 10 Brussels II bis clearly indicates that it applies to intra-EU abductions only (points 38-41), as it talks about “a Member State” and “another Member State”.
Second, as regards the context of Article 10 Brussels II bis, CJEU pointed that it constitutes a special ground of jurisdiction with respect to the general one in matters of parental responsibility laid down in Article 8(1), which provides for the jurisdiction of the Member State, where the child is habitually resident (paragraph 43). This ground of jurisdiction “defeats what would otherwise be the effect of the application of the general ground of jurisdiction (…), in a case of child abduction, namely the transfer of jurisdiction to the Member State where the child may have acquired a new habitual residence, following his or her abduction. Since that transfer of jurisdiction might secure a procedural advantage for the perpetrator of the wrongful act, Article 10 of that regulation provides (…) that the courts of the Member State where the child was habitually resident before the wrongful removal or retention are, nonetheless, to retain their jurisdiction unless certain conditions are met” (paragraph 45).
As a result, if the child has acquired new habitual residence outside the EU, after being wrongfully removed (retained) in a third State, there is no room for the application of the general rule. Hence, in such case also the rule laid down in Article 10 “loses its raison d’être, and there is not, therefore, any reason to apply it” (paragraph 46). Additionally, as it is a special ground of jurisdiction, it must be interpreted restrictively (paragraph 47).
By the way, it is striking to see absolutely different conclusions drawn from this juxtaposition of Articles 8 and 10 Brussels II bis in the opinion:
Where a child was habitually resident in a Member State, as is the case with the child here, the courts of that Member State are to retain their jurisdiction until that child acquires his or her habitual residence in ‘another Member State’. Since reference is made only to another Member State, it can be inferred from this, in my view, that, where a child is wrongfully removed to, or retained in, a non-Member State, the courts of the Member State in which that child was habitually resident continue to have jurisdiction (paragraph 53 of the opinion)
Third, the CJEU refers to the legislative history of Brussels II bis and reminds that the EU legislature wanted to establish strict rules with respect to child abductions within the EU, whereas abductions to third states are supposed to be covered by international conventions, such as the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention and 1996 Hague Parental Responsibility Convention. It might be noted that 1980 Hague Convention is not referred to in the opinion.
The CJEU points out also that the interpretation of Article 10 Brussels II bis as proposed by the referring court “would have the consequence that, where the child has acquired a habitual residence in a third State which is a contracting party to the 1996 Hague Convention, following an abduction, Article 7(1) and Article 52(3) of that convention would be deprived of any effect” (paragraph 53). It should be noted that Article 7(1) 1996 Hague Convention makes provision (like Article 10 Brussel II bis) “for a transfer of jurisdiction to the courts of the State where the child has acquired a new habitual residence, if certain conditions are satisfied. Those conditions are connected, in particular, to the passage of time together with acquiescence or inaction on the part of the person concerned who holds a right of custody, the child having become settled in his or her new environment” (paragraph 54). This possibility would be precluded if Brussels II bis would allow the courts of a Member State to retain indefinitely their jurisdiction (paragraph 55).
Such retention of jurisdiction, in view of the CJEU, would also be “contrary to Article 52(3) of the 1996 Hague Convention, which prohibits rules agreed between one or more contracting States (…) from affecting, in the relationships of those States with the other contracting States, the application of the provisions of that convention. To the extent that jurisdiction in matters of parental responsibility could not be transferred to those courts of contracting States, those relations would necessarily be affected” (paragraph 55).
Additionally, indefinite retention of jurisdiction would be incompatible with one of the fundamental objectives pursued by the regulation, namely the best interests of the child, which gives priority to the criterion of proximity (paragraph 58). This objective requires setting balance between “the need to prevent the perpetrator of the abduction from reaping the benefit of his or her wrongful act” and “the value of allowing the court that is closest to the child to hear actions relating to parental responsibility” (paragraph 59). Interestingly, in the opinion, while referring to the best interest of the child, the objective of “deterring child abductions” seems to be given priority (paragraph 70 of the opinion).
Finally, indefinite retention of jurisdiction, according to the CJEU, would also disregard the logic of the mechanisms established by the 1980 Hague Convention.
If, in accordance with Article 16 of that convention, it is established that the conditions laid down by that convention for return of the child are not satisfied, or if an application under that convention has not been made within a reasonable time, the authorities of the State to which the child has been removed (…) become the authorities of the State of habitual residence of the child, and should, as the courts that are geographically closest to that place of habitual residence, have the power to exercise their jurisdiction in matters of parental responsibility. That convention remains applicable, in particular, in relations between the Member States and the other contracting parties (paragraph 61).