A post published a few days ago on this blog presented, and briefly discussed, the private international law issues raised by the case of Indi Gregory, the critically ill eight-month-old child that parents wanted to transfer to Italy, to avoid the withdrawal of the life-sustaining treatment she was receiving at a hospital in England.
In fact, the child’s doctors at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham had assessed that withdrawing the life-sustaining treatment would be in Indi’s best interests, having regard to the pain she was enduring because of the treatment itself and the lack of prospects of improvement. The parents disagreed, and sought to have the treatment extended for as long as possible.
As explained in more detail in the post mentioned above, the English High Court ruled in favour of the hospital trust in October 2023, and authorized the withdrawal of the treatment. A request for permission to appeal against the ruling was dismissed, and so was a subsequent application to the High Court whereby Indi’s parents sought to have the initial ruling reconsidered in light of new circumstances, including the fact that a hospital in Rome had expressed its availability to provide Indi with the extended treatment that parents were seeking.
Several readers will likely be aware by now of the dramatic developments of the case, as these were largely reported in the media throughout Europe and elsewhere. Indi was eventually transferred to a hospice in England, where she died on 13 November 2023, soon after the first steps for the court-approved withdrawal plan were put in place.
Before this tragic epilogue occurred, Indi’s parents had sought permission to appeal against an additional order given by Peel J for the High Court. Specifically, the parents had challenged the decision whereby the removal of invasive mechanical ventilation, i.e., extubation, that Peel J had previously authorised, should take place at a hospice. Their case was that Indi should be rather extubated at home.
On 10 November 2023, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales dismissed the application, assessing that no grounds appeared to exist to reconsider the order. The Court held, in particular that, contrary to the parents’ submission, they had not suffered from any unfairness in the proceedings before the High Court (Indi’s father claimed, inter alia, that he did not know that he had the opportunity to get his own evidence about the issue of the location of extubation at the hearing held before Peel J), and that the conditions for reopening a court’s earlier determination of a child’s best interests were not met in the circumstances.
The Court of Appeal had not been asked to deal with issues of private international law for the purposes of fiving the ruling of 10 November. In a significant obiter, however, the Court did address such issues.
It is worth recalling that on 6 November 2023 the Italian Government decided to grant Italian citizenship to Indi Gregory, and that, shortly afterwards, the Italian Consul in Manchester, acting as a “guardianship judge” pursuant to Italian legislation, took two measures. First, as reported by the Court of Appeal, the Consul issued a decree – arguably, one taken as a matter of urgency – whereby he appointed a guardian for Indi and authorised her removal to Italy for treatment. Secondly, the Consul wrote to the High Court requesting that that he be authorised to exercise jurisdiction over the case in accordance with Article 9(1) of the Hague Convention of 19 October 1996 on the Protection of Children, which permits such a request where the requesting authority considers that they are better able to assess the child’s best interests. compared with the authorities in the State where the child is habitually resident.
The Court of Appeal, in the words of Peter Jackson, criticised the latter moves in unusually strong terms. Having noted that the “only basis upon which such a request could even theoretically be made in Indi’s case is that she was granted Italian citizenship”, the Court observed that in hearings before the High Court and before the Court of Appeal itself, Indi’s father had “accepted that decisions about Indi’s welfare are to be made by [English] courts”, adding that
in any case, the argument that the Italian authorities are better able than the English court to determine Indi’s best interests is in our view wholly misconceived and a request of this nature is clearly contrary to the spirit of this important international convention.
The Court did not elaborate on the denounced misconception nor on the spirit of the Convention.
Arguably, the obiter reflects an understanding of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children that could be summarised as follows.
1. The Convention, as stated in the preamble, aims to “improve the protection of children in international situations”. It does so by avoiding (or managing) conflicts between their Contracting States’ legal systems in respect of jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition and enforcement of measures for the protection of children.
2. Contracting States share the view that, as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and recalled in the Hague Convention’s own preamble, “the best interests of the child are to be a primary consideration”. The Convention, based as it is on the assumption that the protection of children is best ensured in a cross-border cases through international cooperation, builds on mutual trust among Contracting States. It is in fact mutual trust, combined with the primary consideration owed to the best interests of the child, that suggests that the authorities of a State other than the State of habitual residence of the child should refrain, in principle, from exercising their jurisdiction over the child, let alone disregarding the measures taken by the authorities of the State of habitual residence.
3. The substantive and procedural rules applied in one Contracting State may differ from those in force in another, but such differences do not mean that Contracting States may, as a matter of principle, step out from the framework of cooperation established by the Convention, and depart from its rules (engaging with differences is precisely the purpose of private international law, generally). Put in another way, it may be that the (political) institutions of a Contracting State disagree with the way in which a particular case is handled by the (judicial) authorities of another (including because of the rules and standards applied by such authorities to decide the case differ from the rules and standard that the former institutions would follow in the circumstances), but the Convention does not permit the former State to interfere, on this ground, with the work carried out by the authorities of the latter State, notably by issuing competing orders.
4. Habitual residence is the key connecting factor under the Convention for the purposes of allocating jurisdiction. It was chosen on the assumption that, generally, the authorities of the State where the centre of the child’s interests are located, regardless of the child’s nationality, are best placed to assess his or her interests. Nationality, too, may play a role, but only insofar as the circumstances indicate that the authorities of the State of nationality would be better place to assess the child’s interests in the particular case concerned, provided, in any case, that the authorities of the State of habitual residence agree with this finding. The mere fact that a child possesses the nationality of a Contracting State does not confer as such on the authorities of the State of nationality the power to rule on the child.