La sustracción internacional de menores en el espacio jurídico europeo (International Child Abduction in the European Union), a monograh by PIL Assistant Professor Maria González Marimón (University of Valencia), has just been released by the Spanish publishing house Tirant Lo Blanch.
The book covers the landscape of sources in force the European Union, in an area characterized by the confluence of instruments of different origin and scope, some of which have recently undergone relevant changes.
It claims that a redefinition of the legal framework and of the interfaces among instruments is needed in order to adapt to new societal patterns as well as to currently prevailing values, in particular to the central role of children rights and to the principle of their best interests.
In addition, after a thorough, critical analysis of the novelties of Council Regulation (EU) 2019/1111 of 25 June 2019 on jurisdiction, the recognition and enforcement of decisions in matrimonial matters and the matters of parental responsibility, and on international child abduction (recast) (Brussels II ter Regulation), it argues that the opportunity has been lost of getting rid of the “overriding mechanism” under Article 29 of said Regulation.
The author has kindly provided the following summary of the contents and main thesis of the book:
International child abduction provides a paradigmatic example of the complexity of cross-border cases involving children. The profound societal changes of recent decades (the consolidation of different family models, the preponderance of a children rights-centered approach to the detriment of a parents’ rights-centered paradigm) are prompting to rethink and to reshape the legal framework of child abduction.
The EU traditional response to international child abduction can indeed be described as a complicated and fragmented body of legal sources: judges and practitioners in the field needed (and need) to have in mind the EU rules on the matter together with those of the 1980 Hague Convention, and, punctually, also the 1996 Hague Convention. The EU legislator, aware of the complexity and practical difficulties of the Brussels II bis rules on international child abduction, has tried to improve and refine them in the recast Regulation of 2019 . The obvious first sign of improvement is the completely new Chapter III, focused on international child abduction. This shift in the structure of the Regulation is accompanied by a welcomed explanation of its relationship to the 1980 Hague Convention. Also regarding the return procedure, the Brussels II ter Regulation introduces some (albeit not far-reaching) developments for its functioning in practice.
A further group of rules in the new Regulation reflects the EU legislator’s commitment to adapting international child abduction rules to new social realities while pushing the children’s rights to the forefront. In this regard, worth noting provisions are the ones related to the age of the child; to reinforcing the child’s right to express his or her views in return proceedings; to the new faculty granted to the courts to guarantee the contact of the child with the parent requesting return; to the promotion of the child’s “safe return”; or to fostering ADR mechanisms to solve the disputes.
In contrast to the progresses alluded to, the EU legislator has missed the opportunity to do away with the very much questioned so-called “overriding mechanism”. Following this special procedure, the last word in relation to the return of a wrongfully removed or retained child is given to the court having jurisdiction under the Regulation; its decision prevails over any non-return previous one adopted by the court of another Member State pursuant to Article 13 of the 1980 Hague Convention. In principle, this priority is reinforced by the elimination of the exequatur requirement, without any ground of refusal of the return decision.
To the extent the “overriding mechanism” has been a source of headaches for legal operators and practitioners, it was legitimate to claim it should be dropped, and regrettable that it has not. A comparison of the respective case law of the CJEU and the ECtHR adds relevance to the matter. In the event of exceptional circumstances questioning the convenience of enforcing the privileged decision (i.e., the one of the court competent according to the Regulation), the Luxembourg Court has reacted backing up the system. By contrast, the ECtHR’s case-law on international child abduction supports a more substantive approach by recalling the need to assess the best interests of the child concerned in each particular case.
The awareness of the Strasbourg case law had led to the conviction that, in order to achieve the European legal integration objective while simultaneously protecting each individual child, a model flexible and predictable at a time was of the essence. In this regard, abolishing the exequatur for all decisions on parental responsibility, but maintaining certain safeguards at the enforcement procedure so as to allow for the assessment of the best interests of the child in the individual case, would strike a delicate, but adequate, balance between the free movement of judgments and the best interests of each child.
In fact, this is precisely the subtle equilibrium reflected in the Brussels II ter Regulation. In spite of retaining the privileged regime for return decisions resulting from the “overriding mechanism”, the Regulation actually tries to temper one of its most controversial aspects identified in practice, namely the automatism of the model, which had proven too rigid. Two are the ways to this aim: first, the possibility of modification and revocation of the certificate; secondly, a new cause of suspension – and even refusal – of the enforcement, in the event of an exceptional change of circumstances linked to the best interest of the child.
The amendment of the old “overriding mechanism” has great relevance from the perspective of the debate between the elimination of exequatur, on the one hand, and the adequate protection of children’s fundamental rights and of the best interests of the child when enforcement is seized, on the other. The new Regulation gives room to the evaluation of the judge in the requested Member State. By doing so, it can be said that the EU legislator deconstructs the model of abolition of the exequatur “in absolute terms”. Still, despite its foreseeable advantages, the system is not free of doubts regarding its future application: divergent doctrinal and jurisprudence interpretations are to be expected; also, there is a risk of abuse in the practice of the already mentioned cause for suspension (or even refusal) at the enforcement stage.
In conclusion, notwithstanding the continuity of the “overriding mechanism”, and, we insist, the lost opportunity to do away with it, the new international child abduction rules strike a better balance in the allocation of competences between the Member State with competence on the substance of the matter and the Member State in which the child is wrongfully located. It equally achieves a better compromise in relation to the assumption of the principle of the best interests of the child, and the interplay between the child’s immediate return and its exceptions. We will see whether the new rules, coupled with the reinforcement of communication and cooperation between the authorities involved, lead to strengthen the climate of trust among the judiciary of the Member States, and, in the end, to a better protection of children in EU cross-border cases.