The author of this post is Costanza Honorati, professor of EU law and private international law at the University of Milan Bicocca. She chaired the working group that prepared a position paper on behalf of the European Association of Private International Law in view of the eight meeting of the Special Commission on the practical operation on the 1980 Child Abduction and the 1996 Child Protection Conventions, and attended the meeting on behalf of EAPIL.
The Special Commission (SC) charged by the Hague Conference on Private International to discuss the practical operation of the 1980 Child Abduction Convention and the 1996 Child Protection Convention met for the eighth time from 10 to 17 October 2023. The meeting was attended by 471 delegates, in person and online, representing 66 HCCH Members, 13 non-Member Contracting Parties, 27 observers from inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, including the European Association of Private International Law (see its position paper as Info. Doc. No 18 of October 2023)
As usual, at the end of the meeting the SC adopted a set of Conclusions & Recommendations (C&R), whose content is briefly summarized below, with a focus on a selection of issues. To the reader’s benefit the two Conventions are addressed here separately.
The 1980 Child Abduction Convention
The SC took note that, since the Seventh Meeting of the SC in 2017, five States have become Contracting Parties to the 1980 Child Abduction Convention (Barbados, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Cuba, and Guyana), bringing the total number of Contracting Parties to the Convention to 103.
Interesting information were drawn from the fifth Statistical Study drawn by prof. Nigel Lowe and Victoria Stephens for the year 2021 (Prel. Doc. No 19A ). While the data in that year are likely to have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, a few relevant findings are worth mentioning. Among these, the increase in the average number of days it took to reach a final decision; the increase of refusals to return; the almost double increase of proportion of refusals to return on the basis of the Article 13(1)(b) exception, compared with the results of the 2015 statistical study; the small decrease in cases going to court; the increase of cases being settled outside court .
While the SC has reaffirmed and reiterated some of the conclusions adopted in previous meetings, a few specific topics have been discussed in greater detail.
Under the heading Addressing delays under the 1980 Child Abduction Convention, the SC found that delays continue to be a significant obstacle in the operation of the 1980 Child Abduction Convention and the SC strongly recommended Contracting Parties experiencing delays to review their existing processes in order to identify potential causes of delays.
With this in mind the SC reiterated
the effectiveness and value of the use of information technology for efficient communication between authorities, sharing of data, and to assist in reducing delays and expedite return proceedings.
The SC thus encouraged States to continue implementing and enhancing the use of information technology and to make use of the Guide to Good Practice on the Use of Video-Link under the 1970 Evidence Convention as a helpful resource (para 5-9).
The SC then addressed the Relationship of the 1980 Child Abduction Convention with other international instruments – 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Having recalled the rationale for the return of the child and the scope of the return proceedings, the SC emphasized how return proceedings should not include a comprehensive ‘best interests assessment’. In particular the SC stated, at para 14 e 15 that
[w]hile the exceptions derive from a consideration of the interests of the child, they do not turn the return proceedings into custody proceedings. Exceptions are focussed on the (possible non-) return of the child. They should neither deal with issues of custody nor mandate a full “best interests assessment” for a child within return proceedings.
Similar findings are featured in the communication No 121/2020 of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child under the Optional Protocol on a Communications Procedure.
The SC had a lively discussion on the Application of Article 13(1)(b) of the 1980 Child Abduction Convention in a contest of Domestic violence. The C&R reflect the discussion summarizing some of the results as following. It firstly makes reference to the Guide to Good Practices on Article 13, noting that, according to paragraph 33,
harm to a parent, whether physical or psychological, could, in some exceptional circumstances, create a grave risk that the return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation. The Article 13(1)(b) exception does not require, for example, that the child be the direct or primary victim of physical harm if there is sufficient evidence that, because of a risk of harm directed to a taking parent, there is a grave risk to the child.
In light of the ongoing discussions and initiatives promoted by advocates for victims of domestic violence, the SC supported the proposal to hold a international open forum allowing for discussions amongst organisations representing parents and children and those applying the Convention. The Philippines offered to assess hosting the forum in Manila in 2024 and States have been invited to contribute in the organisation and funding of such a forum (para 26)
Closely connected to domestic violence is the related issue of Safe return and measures of protection. Interestingly, the SC made it clear that a court may also order protective measures to protect the accompanying parent in order to address the grave risk to the child (para 28). As regards undertakings, the SC reiterated that the efficacy of the measures of protection will depend on whether they are enforceable in the State of habitual residence of the child. Insofar, voluntary undertakings are not easily or always enforceable and, because they may not be effective in many cases, they should be used with greatest caution. It was also suggested that, when undertakings are made to the court of the requested State, they should be included in the return order in order to help facilitate enforcement in the State of habitual residence of the child. This is a new practice that could come result interesting.
The issue of hearing of the child again attracted much interest. Based on the fact that States follow very different approaches when hearing the child, C&R aim to circulate some good practices, such as (para 37)
a) the person who hears the child, be it the judge, an independent expert or any other person, should have appropriate training to carry out this task in a child-friendly manner and training on international child abduction; b) if the person hearing the child speaks to one parent, they should speak to the other; c) the person hearing the child should not express any view on questions of custody and access as the child abduction application deals only with return.
It was also emphasised that when hearing the child for the purposes of Article 13(2), this should be done only for such purpose and not in respect of broader questions concerning the welfare of the child, which are for the court of the child’s habitual residence. In other terms, the hearing of the child should be kept in the framework of an exception to return and not embrace a wider scope.
The very topical issue of asylum claim lodged in abduction cases was also shortly discussed, on the basis of Prel. Doc. No 16 . The C&R only indicate that such proceedings should be examined expeditiously (para 40).
The 1996 Hague Convention
Eight new States have become Contracting Parties to the 1996 Child Protection Convention since the 2017 SC, namely Barbados, Cabo Verde, Costa Rica, Fiji, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay, thus bringing the total number of Contracting Parties to the Convention to 54 (27 of which are EU Member States).
Some interesting clarifications were given in relation to recognition and enforcement of protection measures. First, in relation to the scope of application of Article 26(1) – a rule which provides that, where measures taken in one Contracting Party require enforcement in another Contracting Party, such measures shall be declared enforceable or registered for the purpose of enforcement in that other Contracting Party – the SC made it clear that not all measures of protection require enforcement under Article 26. Enforcement shall be required, for example, for the forced sale of property; or in relation to a parent refusing to abide by the orders made by the competent authority in another State. Because not all cases fall under Article 26, the SC invited Contracting Parties (in relation to their laws) and competent authorities (in relation to their procedures) to differentiate between those measures that require enforcement and those that do not (para 74-75).
Second, it was noted that, in order to facilitate the recognition and enforcement of measures of protection, the competent authority should carefully describe those measures in the decision and the grounds upon which it based its jurisdiction, including when jurisdiction is based on Article 11(1) (para 77-78).
Another interesting topic on which the SC focused is the placement of children. In this regard the SC endeavored to clarify what should be regarded as placement under Article 3(e) and Article 33 (i.e. any placement of the child in a foster family or in institutional care, or the provision of care by kafala or an analogous institution) ) and also what should not be regarded as a placement (i.e. purely private arrangements, including the ones in the form of an agreement or unilateral act, including a notarial kafala; a child travelling abroad for tourism purposes with their foster parent) (para. 83 et seq).
It then offered a useful guidance on minimum steps for the procedure under Article 33. These include the following:
1. The competent authority of the State which is contemplating the measure of alternative care must consult the Central Authority or competent authority in the State where it is proposed that the measure will be exercised by: (1) discussing the possibility of such a placement in the receiving State; (2) transmitting a report on the child; (3) explaining the reasons for the proposed placement or provision of care outside the requesting State and in the requested State.
2. The Central Authority or competent authority of the State where it is proposed that the measure will be exercised gives its consent to the proposed placement or provision of care.
3. If the requested State has consented to the placement or provision of care, taking into account the child’s best interests, the competent authority of the requesting State then issues its decision.
Call for Further Action
Finally, as a result of the lively debate in the course of the SC, the need for further future action of both the Permanent Bureau (PB) and Contracting States was recommended. This was further reflected in the C&R with respect to the following topics.
In relation to direct judicial communications and the International Hague Network of Judges (IHNJ), the proposal was advanced to develop a short model guide to court practice and further initiatives to hold a regional in-person meeting of the IHNJ in Brazil (May 2024) and a global in-person meeting of the IHNJ in Singapore (May 2025) (para 19).
Regarding the determination of wrongful removal pursuant Articles 8, 14 and 15, the SC invited the PB to draw up a note containing information on the use of such rules, drawing from the contents of Prel. Doc. No 14. (para 46).
As to the revised Request for Return Recommended Model Form and the new Request for Access Recommended Model Form, the SC concluded that further work needed. A Group of interested delegates will assist the PB in finalising both revised Forms (para 50).
Concerning relocation, after noting the strong impact on international abduction and the diversity of approaches of States in this matter, the SC proposed the development of a questionnaire by the PB directed to States to gather information about procedures that States have in place to facilitate lawful relocation (para 54);
With regard to transfer of proceedings under Article 8 and 9 of the 1996 Child Protection Convention, besides recalling the general duty to cooperate among Central Authorities and direct judicial communications between judges involved in a transfer of jurisdiction, the PB was asked to circulate the questionnaire annexed to to all Contracting Parties to the 1996 Child Protection Convention, with a view to collecting information from judges and Central Authorities regarding requests under Article 8 or 9 and to then review such document in light of the responses from Contracting Parties (para 69).
Finally, on the placement of children, the PB was asked to start collecting information on the operation of Article 33 from Contracting Parties in addition to that set out in Doc. No 20 and that a Working Group be established to develop: (a) a model form for cooperation under Article 33; and (b) a guide on the operation of Article 33.