EU withdrawal and family law

Notes on speech of Lady Sherlock in House of Lords

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Extract from conclusion to speech of Lady Sherlock in House of Lords debate on EU withdrawal on 31 January 2017. The numbering is mine. Comments appear below each paragraph:

 

Procedure and European Court of Justice

1 What are the alternatives to the options in this Bill? There are not many. The first is to retain full reciprocity. That would almost certainly mean being bound by the CJEU and its decisions, which Ministers currently reject. It is worth noting that unlike other areas of law, here the CJEU is dealing only with procedural questions, not with substantive law. Every EU state keeps its own family law. The court can rule on questions of interpretation of laws, such as which country decides a case or the wording of enforcement orders. It does not change the law by which a country decides who gets divorced, what maintenance will be granted or how much contact there will be.

 

The procedural point cannot be stressed too strongly. Each EU country keeps its own cultural roots in family law. No one tells the UK it must change its primitive adoption laws; nor dictates to any EU catholic country which may have different bases for dissolution of marriage. UK money distribution remains its own.

 

That said the primacy of children’s welfare in any decisions is one adopted by EU law and re-enforced by the European Court Neulinger and Shuruk v Switzerland Application No 41615/07 [2011] 1 FLR 122, ECtHR).

 

A bespoke arrangement

2 Secondly, we could seek a bespoke arrangement. We could try to make a deal with the EU for a new framework for family law co-operation. That would be slow and difficult and certainly not possible by 2019. Even if we end up with no deal and even if we can get rid of the asymmetry, there is still no guarantee that the Hague conventions would apply, leaving us with an unacceptable void.

 

‘Slow and difficult’ is not an answer. We are here today with ‘exit day’ a matter of months away; so for the sake of the families and children concerned it must be dealt with by 2019. The opposing Brexit army abetted by MPs on both sides of the Commons, is advancing. Family lawyers cannot just say: ‘wait, we aren’t ready to fight’. We just have to work harder to prepare battle positions: ie a fresh Brussels IIA.

 

The ‘bespoke’ solution sounds a little like the second option put forward by family lawyers in reply to Brexit (October 2017). If nothing is ‘bespoken’, separating families and their children will fall off the famous Brexit cliff edge; and this is not for lack of warning. The problems families will suffer as outlined in the earlier part of the speech were predicted by the Supreme Court over a year ago in R (Miller & anor) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5, [2017] 2 WLR 583 at para [71].

 

The painful fact of the matter is that unless EU and the Tories agree to keep such instruments as Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 Concerning Jurisdiction and the Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Matrimonial Matters and in Matters of Parental Responsibility (‘Brussels IIA’) on hold families like the one in the earlier part of Lady Sherlock’s will fall into a Brexit void where few hold will be barred between competing jurisdictions.

 

The Ministry of Justice and practising lawyers must get their heads together with individual jurisdictions to work out what reciprocity can be agreed following EU withdrawal and to agree how this is to be enforced. For the sake of the families and their children concerned, surely those who support EU withdrawal can agree that the European Court of Justice continue to have jurisdiction in those few cases where a neutral arbiter is needed?

3 I am very worried that Ministers appear to have given no attention to what they will do about this area. I have heard not a single thing telling us what they will do. By the time we get to Committee—where I intend to return to this—I very much hope that the Government are in a better position.

4 I have a final word on children. Children’s charities are deeply concerned about whether our law will be sufficiently robust and comprehensive to protect vulnerable children post Brexit. For example, not all the provisions of the EU anti-trafficking directive 2011 were brought into domestic law, which will leave real gaps in safeguards, for example for unaccompanied minors.

 

Children

 

The issues over children go must wider than anti-trafficking (crucial though this is). EU law is much more firm and clear – though still not always followed by UK law (as I explain ). UK is bound by eg Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000/C 364/01), which the Government proposes to ditch. This gives children rights to express their views which still need clearer procedural expression in English and Welsh law. Outside EU there is a real risk that children’s rights will again suffer. The massive advances of Children Act 1989 twenty-five years later and without the impetus of EU law reform look tawdry in the area of children rights.

 

Without Brussels IIA children in care will find themselves caught in a jurisdictional cross-fire where parents leave UK, and children are in care in England and Wales (Brussels IIA Art 15: there are a number of recent reported decisions on this see eg Redbridge LBC v D, E, F and G (Children : Art 15 – transfer of the proceedings) [2017] EWHC 3078 (Fam) (19 September 2017), HHJ Carol Atkinson as High Court judge).

 

Agenda for EU withdrawal

 

If EU withdrawal is to go ahead

 

  • Lawyers and the Ministry of Justice must urgently engage with EU judges (through a representative body, or in each state)
  • Children law and children’s rights to be heard must be made more clear preferably by statute.

 

Without this families and children will suffer.

EU Charter of rights and children

A child’s Charter rights which will be lost

 

The Observer today reported that clause 5(4) in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill which proposes to abolish Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (‘the Charter’) will create a substantial ‘human rights deficit’. It will leave ‘many different groups in society without adequate protection’. Clause 5(4) is in brutally clear terms: ‘(4) The Charter of Fundamental Rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day’. This article concentrates on children’s rights under the Charter which will go on exit day.

 

An important means of protecting rights – apart from those rights already enshrined in a variety of other legislation and in the common law – is European Convention 1950. This is incorporated, most of it, into English law by Human Rights Act 1998. However there are two substantial qualifications to the importance of European Convention 1950, which the Charter helps to resolve. First, Human Rights Act 1998 does not override an Act of Parliament; though it can enable judges to declare them incompatible with the European Convention 1950. Secondly, the Charter’s protection means that if there is a conflict between basic rights contained in the Charter as against an Act of the Westminster parliament, the Charter – as EU law – will prevail over the Act.

 

Thus if there is – as there may be – a conflict between Children Act 1989 s 1(3) and Art 24 of the Charter for children rights, then the Charter will prevail; unless clause 5(4) becomes law when, after exit day – when UK leaves the EU – the Charter exits too.

 

Children law an EU withdrawal: out with the Brexit bathwater…

 

An area of law which will be appreciably affected in a number of ways by EU withdrawal is children law, in particular where they and one of their parents are living in UK, and the other is in a EU member state. That is a subject which is beyond the scope of this article. I want to concentrate here only on the Charter; and referring only to law which does not remain part of English law. Art 24 of the Charter is concerned specifically with children’s rights (as is, though in slightly different terms, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 Art 12).

 

Under European Convention 1950 children do not have specific rights. Like anyone else a child has rights under the Convention, such as to respect for the child’s private life (Art 8); but a child does not have the specific rights protected by Art 24.

 

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union Art 24 says:

 

1 Children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being. They may express their views freely. Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity.

2 In all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration.

3 Every child shall have the right to maintain on a regular basis a personal relationship and direct contact with both his or her parents, unless that is contrary to his or her interests.

 

EU Charter Art 24: children to express views freely

 

I have broken this Article down into its component rights and have set out the Charter rights – ie part of English law as it now stands; and nothing to do with European Convention 1950 human rights. Alongside the Art 24 rights I have shown the parallel English law right – ie all that will remain if the EU Charter is abolished by the Brexit law (as under cl 5(4)). Where there is a blank there is no equivalent provision in English law; though plainly the right at 1 is the subject of a substantial part of a variety of legislation, including local authority involvement with children under Children Act 1989 Parts 3 to 5. It is the right to express views (at 2) which is unique to the Charter:

 

  Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union Art 24: children’s rights English law Source of English law
1 Children have a right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being    
2 Children may express their views freely    
3 Such views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity. When a court is making an order about a child, it shall have regard in particular to – (a) the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding) Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a) and (4)
4 In all children cases… the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration. When a court determines any question with respect to – (a) the upbringing of a child; or the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration. Children Act 1989 s 1(1)
5 Every child shall have the right to maintain a personal relationship and direct contact with both his or her parents, unless that is contrary to the child’s interests A court is entitled to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare. Children Act 1989 s 1(2A)[1]

 

Child’s views, according to age and maturity

 

The passages in Art 24 with which I am concerned here are at 2 and 3; since 2 is not re-produced in English law in terms which are, in effect, mandatory as is the case in Art 24. If a child wants to express a view, the child ‘may’ do so; and means must be found to ensure this. Even now that is not done properly in English children proceedings. The provision at 2 in the table does not exist in English law, save – whilst the Charter remains part of English law – in Art 24.

 

The importance of Art 24 has been asserted by the Court of Appeal in a judgment approved by the Supreme Court in Re D (A Child) (International Recognition) [2016] EWCA Civ 12, [2016] 1 WLR 2469, [2016] 2 FLR 347 where Lord Justice Ryder explained why a seven-year old Bulgarian child should have had ‘an opportunity to be heard’. This does not mean the child necessarily has to appear in court; but the ‘opportunity’ must be there which it had not been in the Bulgarian courts.

 

The terminology ‘opportunity to be heard’ derives from EU legislation – Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 of 27 November 2003 Concerning Jurisdiction and the Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Matrimonial Matters and in Matters of Parental Responsibility – to give it its full title; generally known as ‘Brussels IIA’, or Brussels IIR. That legislation will also go with EU withdrawal, a fact which was noted (at para [71]) by the Supreme Court in the Gina Miller case (R (Miller & anor) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017] UKSC 5, [2017] 2 WLR 583).

 

The alignment of Brussels IIA and the Charter will be considered in another article. For now it is sufficient to say that Brussels IIA as part of its preliminary provisions includes:

 

(33) [Brussels IIA] recognises the fundamental rights and observes the principles of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In particular, it seeks to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the child as set out in Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,

 

Views: an opportunity to be heard

 

So, said Ryder LJ, in Re D (above) that the child’s right to an opportunity to be heard is a ‘child-centred issue’. It ensures that the child is engaged in the process and is accorded due respect in that process. It is thus part of the rule of law in England and Wales that a child has the right to participate in the process about the child (emphasis added) he said, and then continued:

 

[44]  … That is the fundamental principle that is reflected in our legislation, our rules and practice directions and our jurisprudence. At its most basic level it involves asking at an early stage in family proceedings whether and how that child is going to be given the opportunity to be heard. The qualification in s 1(3)(a) of the CA 1989 like that in Art 12(1) of the UNCRC 1989 relates to the weight to be put upon a child’s wishes and feelings, not their participation (my italics).

 

To me this issue turns on the two forms of legislation at 3 above. Childrens’ views shall be taken into consideration on matters which concern them in accordance with their age and maturity, is the EU Charter version. English law says that when making  a decision about a child’s future the court ‘shall have regard in particular to – (a) the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding)’.

 

To me – and I am trying very hard not to load my pro-European views onto this – the English version of the law, from a child’s point of view, is appreciably weaker under Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a). A child’s ‘wishes and feelings’ are but one of six factors to be considered by the court. None of the six are to be given priority. In EU law the child has a right – unconditionally – to have his or her views taken into account (if that is what the child wants).

 

Under the EU withdrawal bill those child’s rights will go. Children Act 1989 s 1(3)(a) will be all that is left to protect such rights as children are accorded by family courts.

[1] Added by amendment by Children and Families Act 2014 from April 2014