The short answer is yes you can go to prison for taking your children to live abroad if you don’t have your ex-partner’s agreement or a Court order. The Daily Mail has reported on the case of a UK mother, Indea Ford, who this week has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, after being extradited from the States, and standing trial in the UK for taking her two daughters to live in Alaska. Mrs Ford is likely to serve nine months in prison in the UK before being allowed to fly back to the States to return to live with her second husband, two daughters and her toddler child born from her relationship with her second husband.
Court order to take children to live abroad
On first reading the Indea Ford decision to send a mum of three young children to prison seems really harsh, not only on Mrs Ford but on her children. A read through the Daily Mail article reveals that Mrs Ford asked her ex-husband for permission to take her two daughters to live in the States and when he refused to agree she applied for a family Court order. All would have been well for her had she been successful in her family Court application but she lost. The family judge decided that Mrs Ford and the children had no prior links to the States and that it was better for the children to stay in the UK. The correct legal option would have been to appeal the decision or wait, build up her legal case, and apply to the family Court again.
Mrs Ford didn’t do that. Instead she breached the family Court order saying that one of her daughter’s passports had been lost or stolen so she could get a replacement passport and leave the UK with her two children. Prior to her departure the children had been seeing their dad but after the move to the USA contact stopped. The criminal proceedings and extradition have resulted in the children losing both their mum and dad as the girls are currently being looked after by their step father in the States and haven’t seen their birth dad.
Criminal proceedings and prison
The criminal trial judge who sentenced the mother to prison time made it clear that he was doing so because Mrs Ford had deliberately breached a family Court order refusing her permission to take the children abroad to live. The family Court document said that Mrs Ford would commit a criminal offence if she disobeyed the family Court order and took the children abroad. Despite the Court warning Mrs Ford went on with her plans to take the children to the States, securing a passport for one of her daughters by lying and saying that the original had been lost or stolen when she knew that the family Court had ordered that each parent keep one daughter’s passport for safekeeping.
Reporting restrictions have prevented anyone on reporting why Mrs Ford felt so driven to breach the family Court order and take her daughters to the States but the media reports that she thought her highly acrimonious split from her ex-husband was damaging to the children. After Mrs Ford has served her prison sentence she will be able to return to the States to her second husband and three children but what about the long term harm of the criminal Court proceedings and maternal separation on the children? What about the potential for the children to find it harder to repair their relationship with their birth dad because of the criminal Court case against their mum and their mother’s prison time?
Last year there were a number of cases where family judges in the UK took the unusual step of sending a parent to prison for contempt of Court. Jail time is imposed because of the parent’s failure to comply with family Court orders made within child abduction proceedings.
In the past if a child was taken to a country outside of the European Union or a country that isn’t a signatory to the Hague convention the parent left in the UK often felt frustrated by the legal remedies to enforce UK family Court orders to recover their child from abroad.
After a separation or divorce, and particularly if families have connections to more than one country, one parent may take a child abroad, often back to their country of origin, leaving the child abroad and in the care of their extended family. The parent then returns to the UK without the child to pick up their life again. Sometimes a parent doesn’t even realise that if a child is what is called habitually resident in the UK they can’t just take their son or daughter abroad to live without the other parent’s agreement or a UK Court order . When the parent returns to the UK they often plead ignorance of the law and say that they have no control over whether their relatives comply with UK family Court orders and return the child to the UK.
The Zubaidy family case is an example of a situation where a family Court has been willing to sentence a parent to jail time for their part in parental child abduction. Mr Zubaidy took his 3 children into Libya, through Tunisia, leaving the children with relatives in Libya. He then returned to the UK and whilst he eventually returned his son said that he couldn’t sort out the return of his 2 daughters. The family Court took a very robust approach and ordered Mr Zubaidy to provide addresses and information to help recover and return the girls to the UK. Mr Zubaidy didn’t obey a number of family Court orders, and to the mother’s frustration and distress, her daughters remain with paternal relatives in Libya.
Contempt of Court proceedings were started against the children’s father and the Court was able to conclude that Mr Zubaidy had flouted family Court orders and in August 2017 sentenced him to 12 months imprisonment.
When family judges have made robust orders for imprisonment this has resulted in family members abroad cooperating with the UK Court orders and returning children. For any parent caught up in trying to recover their children from abroad getting the other parent imprisoned is the very last resort but can hold the key to the eventual return of their son or daughter.
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Applying to Court for permission to take children abroad to live
The case of Mrs Ford shows just how important it is to not only comply with family Court orders but to do all you can to get it right in the first case. How much easier it would have been for the children if Mrs Ford had been able to persuade the family judge to give her permission to take the children to the States.
As a children lawyer , specialising in child abduction and complex children Court cases , I sometimes find that parents question the need for detailed preparation work as they assume they’ll get the Court permission they want without having to detail the background to their separation or research their plans to live abroad. I know just how devastating it can be for a parent to be told ‘’no ‘’ by a Court and preparation is the best chance of getting the order you want.
The best advice is to:
• Chose a specialist children lawyer who can give you an honest opinion on your likely chances of a successful Court application and can tell you how much information and preparation will be required to maximise the chances of success;
• Work with your lawyer – if they tell you that they need information about your relationship it is not salaciousness it is because they need it to help you;
• Research where you want to move to – you should look at houses , jobs , health services , schools and of course how contact would work in relation to your proposals and transport times and costs;
• Consider the timing of any Court application – sometimes an application should be delayed or in other family circumstances it needs to be pushed through, for example so a child will start senior school in the new country rather than join a new school in a new country mid-term;
• If you don’t get the Court decision you want take more legal advice before taking your children abroad.