Managing Director Catherine Thomas speaks on international child relocation

    Vardags Managing Director, Catherine Thomas, has been speaking on Radio 5 Live on the thorny issue of international child relocation. On air in conversation with Adrian Chiles, she discussed “how the law actually stands”, in Chiles’s words, to “clarify this very dark, very grey area.”

    There has been a notable rise in such cases of late, because, many suspect, the job market has become increasingly global and mothers are returning to the workplace far more frequently. Mothers now have greater cause to remove children and also higher incomes which means they are able to fund court disputes over the children. It has now become something of a hot topic in the media.

    Presenter Adrian Chiles began by discussing the first-hand experiences of many fathers who have had their children relocated abroad by their mothers, interviewing two dads who’d been through these sorts of court applications. In one case, the mother had been successful, and his child was removed to New Zealand, while the latter successfully challenged it, and his child was not allowed to be taken abroad. Chiles then turned to Catherine for the lawyer’s expert perspective. In an interview that had to be interrupted to broadcast Tony Blair’s speech on the EU referendum, Catherine put forward the balanced view of the family lawyer who’s seen both sides of the situation unfold countless times.

    She explained how consideration of the child’s best interests has become the real testing point once more, whereas in the past the mother’s emotional wellbeing had been prioritised, giving her a certain advantage. She feels that the mother-centric approach was a mistake, an opinion that she believes is shared with many other lawyers in the family profession. She also put the point across that there is an assumption in law that the child will continue to have a relationship with both parents, despite many people believing the contrary. There’s “no presumption” that children are better off with their mothers but that very often they become primary carers for children which in practical terms means that it’s often easier for them to continue in that vein.

    Putting the leanings of the English courts into a more international perspective, Catherine explained that they are prepared to let children go abroad with their parents far more than other countries. She offered the example of Italy for the purposes of comparison: Italian courts tend to assume that all Italian children are better off in Italy. In England, on the contrary, it is more open-ended, which can lead to some heart-rending situations for divorced or separated parents. Catherine discussed the need for the parent who’s attempting to remove the child – often the mother – to come with best-laid plans for how the child will live abroad: where they’re going to live, what schools they would attend, what languages they will speak, how will they get to see the parent who’s left behind. A judge will want to look at this to establish what might be in the child’s best interests.

    So, Adrian Chiles wanted to know: what can fathers – as they usually are – do to protect themselves from having their children taken abroad? It seems that they should try to involve themselves with their children’s lives as much as possible and to show a real interest in continuing a relationship with them; a point with which Catherine agreed.

    Addressing the sense of apathy that many of the callers and writers to the programme expressed, Catherine did impress upon them that, should it come down to it, you can take the fight to the courts. However, it was also necessary to tackle the issue of costs – a factor that Chiles had suggested as being instrumental in the rise of such cases – and she noted that it would previously have been easier to pursue such disputes in the days when legal aid was readily available for family cases. Being one of the most divisive areas of family law, Catherine assured Chiles and the Radio 5 Live listeners that it’s not easy for the judges either, revealing that they often “torment themselves” over their decisions in these “extraordinarily difficult cases”. “It is, she admitted, “desperately sad”, and there are no easy answers.