With the other side of the world only a day’s flying time away, personal relationships are no longer constrained by distance and that can pose a particular challenge for family judges. A case on point concerned a 10-year-old boy at the centre of a trans-global struggle between his British father and New Zealander mother.
The boy was born in England and spent the first nine years of his life in this country. Following the acrimonious end of his parents’ marriage, however, the mother was granted permission to take him back to New Zealand with her. Faced by court proceedings, the father had consented to their relocation.
The boy visited his father in England over the Christmas period and, when the time came for him to fly back to New Zealand, the father informed the mother through solicitors that he would not be returning. The mother launched proceedings in England under the Hague Child Abduction Convention, seeking a court order requiring the boy’s return to her care.
In resisting the application, the father expressed grave concerns about the mother’s parenting skills and argued that his son had no wish to return to New Zealand. He pointed to the mother’s history of depression and her alleged abuse of alcohol. The boy’s mental health and schooling were said to have suffered and the mother was alleged to be embroiled in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend.
In granting a return order, the High Court found that it was appropriate to take the boy’s views into account, although his level of understanding and maturity was below that to be expected of a child of his age. His father, however, had a powerful influence over him and his wish not to return to New Zealand was more of an expression of a preference than an actual objection.
Despite the father’s anxieties about the mother’s abilities as a parent, the Court was not satisfied that ordering the boy’s return to New Zealand would expose him to a grave risk of harm or an otherwise intolerable situation. The mother had promised to refrain from consuming alcohol, and that her son would not come into contact with her partner, pending welfare and risk assessments to be conducted by the child protection authorities in New Zealand. The Court noted that it would remain open to the father to seek to persuade the New Zealand courts that the boy’s welfare would be best served by a move back to England.