The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child determined that the Supreme Court of Chile violated the rights of a child after ordering the child returned to his habitual residence of Spain without applying the best interest test.
Answering An Andes Abduction
The Mother is a national of Chile. In 2015, she married the Father, a national of Spain. In January 2016, her son J.M., a dual Spanish Chilean citizen, was born in Chile. The Mother and her son left Chile to live with the Father in Spain in November 2016.
When J.M. was a little over a year old and living in Spain with both parents, medical professionals suspected he had a language delay and a form of autism.
Shortly after this spectrum diagnosis, the mother wanted to bring J.M. to Chile where she had arranged his treatment and support plan. The mother wanted to stay in Chile for at least two years.
In July 2017, the father signed an authorization for the mother to travel with J.M. to Chile, where the mother scheduled treatments and support for autism. They decided to stay in the country for at least two years. and had the father’s written approval to travel.
In 2018, one year after authorizing the travel, the father filed a complaint with the Central Authority in Spain, the Ministry of Justice, for wrongful abduction and/or retention of J.M. under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In January 2019, two lower courts in Chile agreed with the Mother and rejected the father’s return petition. The courts rejected the father’s claim on the grounds that he had given the tacit, even explicit, consent to remain in Chile, which has been the child’s place of habitual residence since birth.
In September 2019, the Supreme Court of Chile overturned the lower courts’ decisions and ordered the child returned to Spain. The Supreme Court did not indicate the conditions under which J.M.’s return should take place, in whose company he should travel, or where and with whom he would ultimately reside and in what circumstances.
The Mother filed a complaint before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2020.
Hague Child Abduction Convention
I have written and spoken on international custody and child abduction under the Hague Convention. The Convention’s mission is basic: to return children to the State of their habitual residence to require any custody disputes to be resolved in that country, and to discourage parents from taking matters into their own hands by abducting or retaining a child.
The removal or the retention of a child is to be considered wrongful where it is in breach of rights of custody under the law of the State in which the child was habitually resident immediately before the removal or retention; and at the time of removal or retention those rights were actually exercised, either jointly or alone, or would have been so exercised but for the removal or retention.
While there are several defenses to a return of a child, the best interest of the child is not one of those defenses. That’s because the Hague Convention prioritizes expeditious determinations as being in the best interests of the child.
The U.N. Committee held that the Chile Supreme Court’s order for the restitution of J.M. to Spain failed to conduct a best interests assessment required in all actions concerning children, and violated the child’s procedural guarantees under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Committee noted that, under the Hague Convention, decisions on the return of children must be taken promptly to ensure that the child’s normal situation is duly restored. However, the Committee considered that the purpose and objective of the Hague Convention does not entail that a return of the child should be automatically ordered.
The Committee held that in international child abduction cases, states must first assess the factors that may constitute an exception to the duty to immediately return the child under articles 12, 13 and 20 of the Hague Convention, and then secondly, these factors must be evaluated in the light of the best interests of the child.
The Committee did not find that the child should necessarily remain in Chile. Instead, it found that the Supreme Court of Chile failed to apply the necessary procedural safeguards to ensure that return would not expose the child to harm or a situation contrary to his best interests:
A court applying the Hague Convention cannot be required to carry out the same level of examination of the best interests of the child as the courts called upon to decide on custody, visitation arrangements or other related issues . . . the judge ruling on the return must assess . . . the extent to which the return would expose him or her to physical or psychological harm or otherwise be clearly against his or her best interests.
The U.N. Committee ruled that Chile should re-assess the return petition, take into account the length of time elapsed, the extent of J.M.’s integration in Chile, and pay reparations for the violations suffered, including compensation.
The Committee also ruled that Chile should try a little harder to prevent future violations by ensuring the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in decisions concerning international return.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child press release is here.