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The Upcoming First Meeting of the Special Commission on the Hague Adults Convention

On 9, 10 and 11 November 2022, a Special Commission devoted to the Hague Convention of 13 January 2000 on the international protection of adults will meet in the Hague.

The Hague Adults Convention applies in international situations to the protection of persons aged 18 or more who, by reason of an impairment or insufficiency of their personal faculties, are not in a position to protect their interests. It lays down a comprehensive set of private international law rules in this area: rules on jurisdiction to give measures of protection, on the law applicable both to measures of protection and powers of representation conferred by an adult in contemplation of a possible loss of autonomy, on the recognition and enforcement of measures of protection across Contracting States, and on cooperation between the authorities of such States.

Today, fourteen States are bound by the Hague Adults Convention, the latest to join being Greece (actually, the Convention entered into force for Greece yesterday, 1 November 2022).

Why a Special Commission, and How It’s Been Prepared

While the Hague Adults Convention has generally proved to work well in practice, the Council on General of Affairs and Policy of the Hague Conference on Private International Law considered, in 2019, that the time had come to convene a Special Commission for the purpose of reviewing the practical operation of this instrument.

Preparation work began shortly afterwards, with a questionnaire addressed to States aimed to determine the issues that the Special Commission ought to address (the responses are found here), followed by a questionnaire on the practical operation of the Convention (see here the responses).

Since April 2021, a working group constituted for this purpose has been meeting regularly with the aim to draft a Practical Handbook on the Convention and, more generally, to discuss the various documents that the Special Commission will consider in its meeting (or serve as a background to it). As a member of the working group, the author of this post enjoyed the intense and fruitful exchanges that occurred among the members, and witnessed the amazing job carried out by the Permanent Bureau to assist the group and, generally, to get everything ready for the Special Commission.

The meeting of the Special Commission will only open to delegates designated by States and invited observers (by the way, the European Association of Private International is among the observers: as the readers of the blog may recall, EAPIL received a similar invitation in May 2022 to attend the first meeting of the Special Commission on the Hague Maintenance Convention and Protocol). Of course, the Conclusions that the Special Commission will adopt will be made available once the meeting is over.

What to Expect from the Meeting (1): A Substantial Contribution to the Understanding of the Convention

The November 2022 meeting is the first such meeting devoted to the Hague Adults Convention. In fact, the work carried in preparation of the Special Commission over the last year and a half, and its finalisation by the Special Commission, represents the first major collective exercise of this kind regarding the Convention.

This is in itself remarkable, especially if one considers that, over the years, several Special Commission meetings have taken place to discuss the operation of other Hague instruments. For instance, the Special Commission charged with reviewing the operation of the Hague Convention of 1980 on the civil aspects of international child abduction has met seven times, and the next meeting – due to take place in October 2023 – is already under preparation.

As a matter of fact, some practically important issues regarding the Hague Adults Convention had not been the object of detailed analysis before the working group and the Permanent Bureau engaged in this exercise.

One such issue is whether, and in which manner, the Convention applies to ex lege powers of representation, that is powers of representation that, according to the law of some States, a person close to the adult (e.g., their spouse) is entitled to exercise for the purposes of protecting them. A preliminary document, drawn up by the Permanent Bureau with the assistance of the working group provides an account of the questions that surround these powers, and discusses how they could (or should) be dealt with under the Convention.

Doubts have been raised in literature and among practitioners as regards the way in which the Hague Adults Convention deals with advance directives concerning matters of health, welfare and other personal matters. This topic, too, is the object of a preliminary document.

The Special Commission will offer a unique opportunity to collect the views of States and observers on these and several other issues. The finalised Practical Handbook (the latest revised draft is available here) will eventually help shape a common understanding of the operation of the Convention, notably as regards the issues that have prompted doubts and disputes.

While the Practical Handbook and the Conclusions of the Special Commission will not be formally binding on State courts and other authorities, the consensus that the Commission will be able to record on the various topics under discussion will in fact serve as a guideline for anybody having to do with the Convention.

What to Expect from the Meeting (2): A New Wave of Ratifications

One recurring criticism concerning the Hague Adults Convention is that it is in force only for relatively few States. Admittedly, the pace of ratifications has been disappointing.

Experts generally agree that the Convention significantly facilitates the handling of cross-border cases, and authorities in Contracting States frequently report about the benefits offered by the Convention in cases governed by its rules, compared with cases for which the Convention is of no avail (e.g., when the need arises to coordinate proceedings before local courts with proceedings in a State that is not bound by the Convention). Yet, several States have apparently never considered joining the Convention, and many among those that have expressed an interest in ratifying the Convention have so far contented themselves with taking preliminary steps in that direction.

The Special Commission of November 2022 is likely to encourage new ratifications and accessions. There are various reasons for that.

To begin with, the Convention has slowly come under the limelight, these last years. There has been an increase in the number of scholarly writings and academic initiatives regarding the protection of adults, and the practical importance of the topic is no longer challenged. The Special Commission itself is meant, inter alia, to draw the attention of States and stakeholders on the problems surrounding the international protection of adults, and will further increase the visibility of the Convention. All this will plausibly lead more States to consider joining the Convention, or work at its ratification.

Secondly, the Special Commission will enable States to develop a more thorough understanding of the Convention. The benefits of ratification should in fact prove easier to assess based on the information collected in preparation of the Special Commission. The work that individual Contracting States are expected to carry out in the future should also be of help in this respect. Reference is made to the “Country Profiles” that States are invited to prepare in accordance with a draft that the Commission will discuss. The States that will join the Convention in the future will thus be able to rely on a rich collection of data produced both by the Hague Conference and by the current parties. The will not bear the price, in terms of information, that “pioneer” States must face when joining a uniform regime whose actual functioning has not been fully tested or is not thoroughly documented.

What to Expect from the Meeting (3): A Step Towards a Limited Amendment to the Convention Itself?

So far, the Hague Adults Convention has been ratified only by European States. Apart from Switzerland, Monaco and the UK, all of the States parties to the Convention are also Members of the European Union.

As the readers of this blog know, EU institutions have on various occasions expressed the view that the protection of adults in cross-border deserves greater attention on the part of Member States and the Union itself.

Building on the conclusions adopted by the Council in June 2021, the European Commission launched a public consultation in December 2021 on the measures that the Union should adopt in this field (EAPIL issued a position paper in response to that consultation), and published a study on the matter. The Commission is reportedly working at an impact assessment study that would accompany a possible proposal for a regulation.

One of the hurdles that the Union faces in this area is that the EU cannot itself become a party to the Hague Adults Convention, for this is only open to States. This means that the EU could, at best, authorise the Member States that have not yet done so to ratify the Convention “in the interest of the Union”, as it occurred with the Hague Convention of 19 October 1996 on the protection of children.

At a workshop organised by the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU in September 2022, the question has been put forward by the First Secretary of the Hague Conference, Philippe Lortie, of whether it would make sense to amend the Convention so as to include a “REIO clause”, i.e., a clause that would enable regional economic integration organisations, such as the EU, to join the Convention. Other provisions in the Convention could be amended on the same occasion: these additional changes would not alter the substance of the Convention, but rather clarify the meaning of provisions whose uniform interpretation could otherwise be difficult to achieve. The possible scope of the various amendments, together with the issues that this move would entail, are outlined in a dedicated preliminary document that has also been prepared in view of the Special Commission.

The prospect of a direct involvement of the EU as a party to the Hague Convention raises some politically sensitive questions, both for the Member States (external action by the Union is a delicate subject) and for the Union itself. One should consider, among other things, that an amendment to the Convention would take several months to complete: if that path were to be taken, the plans of the European Commission regarding new legislation in this area would likely need to be put on hold for some time, and adapted to the changed context.

The implications of the Union becoming a party to the Convention, however, would also be practically significant. Among other things, the Court of Justice would find itself in a position to issue preliminary rulings on the Convention, thereby in fact playing a key role in the uniform interpretation of its provisions.

It remains unclear whether States (not just EU Member States) may in fact have an appetite for this and/or other changes to the Convention. The Special Commission will provide a first opportunity to discuss this prospect. The topic, however, will likely be rediscussed in the broader context of the next meeting of the Council on General Affairs and Policy of the Conference, due to be held in March 2023.

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