Appeal Court Says Judges Cannot Avoid Determinations of Grave Risk of Harm in Hague Convention Cases

GEO CASUALThe Ontario Court of Appeal recently reversed a Hague Convention order that a mother from England must return to England with her two children, failing which her British husband would have custody of their children. (Zafar v. Saiyid (2018) ONCA 352)

As is becoming typical in Hague cases, the mother and her two young children who had Canadian citizenship,travelled to Canada for a summer holiday, with the permission of her spouse, and the intention of returning to England by a prescribed date.

On August 23, the mother advised the children’s father that their marriage was over and that she would remain in Ontario with the children. He promptly filed a Hague Convention application seeking the return of the children.

At the court hearing the mother conceded that the children’s habitual residence was England, which is the primary question when a Hague application is brought. The law is very clear that children must be returned to their habitual residence where the question of their residence will be determined.

However, Article 13 (b) of the Hague Convention permits a removing parent to argue that the child should not be returned where the other parent poses a grave risk of physical or psychological harm to the child or the spouse. Ms. Saiyid alleged that her husband was “threatening, verbally abusive, financially controlling” and presented “intolerable behaviour towards the mother, smoke and drank”, which reflected an inability to create ” a safe environment free of danger for the children.”

The hearing judge ordered the mother to return the children to England by December 1, failing which the children’s father would have sole custody of the children. He said:

“In a Hague application, I am not to determine the best interests of the children, only jurisdiction. In any event, on affidavits I cannot determine who is telling the truth about Mr. Zafar’s conduct.”

On November 27 the mother obtained a stay of the judge’s order, however, shortly thereafter she voluntarily returned to England with the children and brought an application to the British court seeking orders that she may relocate to Canada with the children.

Nonetheless, she wished to continue with her appeal in Ontario on the basis that the judge’s alleged errors of law could be used against her in the new British proceeding.

The appeal court agreed that her appeal was not moot for the reason she identified and held that the hearing judge erred in stating that he could not determine whether the children were at grave risk of serious harm, delegating that issue to the English courts. The court held that the hearing judge ought to have made a decision based on the record; or considered whether it was appropriate to hear oral evidence from the parties. The hearing judge’s decision to explicitly decline to consider the matter was an error in law.

While the task is enormous, where conduct allegations are thrown back and forth haphazardly, it is a judge’s duty to sift the wheat from the chaff. Oral evidence, with cross-examination is often the best way of doing that. These cases are the most difficult, particularly when young children are involved, when the question becomes “which parent is most believable?”

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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