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M v F [2018] EWHC 1949 (Fam)

Mother’s application to relocate with parties’ children to Uganda granted, by consent. Court determining ancillary issues relating to the relocation, including whether father should have permission to take the children to Eritrea for one week during his time with them.

This application concerned two girls, 11 and 6. The family are of Eritrean origin. The mother's initial application for relocation to Ethiopia was was overtaken by the passage of time, such that, by the time of the hearing the mother sought to relocate to Uganda. On the first day of the hearing, the Court was informed that the father agreed to the children relocating to live in Uganda. Williams J noted that notwithstanding the agreement, as the Court was seized of the issue, it was not absolved of the task of considering whether such a move was in the children's best interests. He found that, having regard to the totality of the evidence, he was quite satisfied that it was in the children's best interests to relocate.

The parties agreed, and the Court held, that it could and should exercise jurisdiction to make child arrangements orders dealing with the time that the children were to have with their father once they had moved to Uganda.

The substantive issues that remained to be determined were as follows:

i) Should it be a precondition to the relocation that it could not take place until a mirror order was in place in Uganda?

The court received evidence from a Ugandan lawyer that an English order could be registered and executed in Uganda, but that the timeframe in which that could be done could not be guaranteed due to the Summer recess. Having conducted a thorough welfare analysis, the Court was satisfied that the mother would ensure the contact with the father takes place whether or not an order was registered, however, in order to ensure that a regime was in place, Williams J held that the order should be registered in Uganda, but that this did not need to take place prior to the move. The Court agreed with the mother's position that it was in the children's best interests to be in Uganda for the start of the new term.

ii) Should the father cover all of the children's costs of travel for the contract, including ancillary costs?

The Court rejected the father's objection to paying the ancillary costs of travel (e.g. transport to/from the airport). It held that as the father pays nothing in maintenance of the children, he should be responsible for all of the costs of the children's travel.

iii) Should the father have permission to take the children to Eritrea for one week during his time with the children?

Applying the three factors set forth in Re R (A Child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1115), Williams J held, having conducted a thorough welfare analysis on the evidence (which included evidence from an expert in Eritrean law), that the existence of a risk of the children not returning from Eritrea, albeit low, combined with the magnitude of the consequences in terms of emotional harm to the children if they were not returned and the complete absence of security, meant that the welfare balance fell clearly against granting the father permission. Williams J held that although welfare benefits of visiting Eritrea existed (e.g. exposure to Eritrean life and culture, being able to visit the father's old house and visiting grandparents), they were limited in extent given that the extended paternal family, like the father, lived primarily in Holland (or elsewhere). Williams J further held that he did not consider it appropriate to make a conditional order (on the basis of father obtaining a mirror order and providing security) or to make an order that they could visit at some point in the future.
iv) Should the children's passports be provided to the father when he spends time with them?

The father argued that he required the children's passports as he may require them to fly to Euro-Disney or to Germany, for ID purposes and for checking into hotels and suchlike. The mother argued that if the father had the passports, the possibility of him travelling with the children to Eritrea could not be dismissed. The Court did not accept the father's reasons for wishing to have the passports and considered that the reality was that the father wanted them in order to achieve some sort of parity with the mother. Williams J noted that the father could travel freely with the children from Holland within the Schengen area; i.e. in reality, it was not a practicalities issue, rather a rights issue. Further, he held that providing the father with the passports opened a window to possible action that was not child-centred; there were not sufficient advantages to father having the passports in order to take that risk.

Summary by Oliver Woolley, barrister, 1GC Family Law

_________________________

 

Neutral Citation Number: [2018] EWHC 1949 (Fam)
Case No: ZC17P00900

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
FAMILY DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 04/07/2018


Before :

MR JUSTICE WILLIAMS

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Between :

M
 Applicant
- and - 
F Respondent
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RE: L and N (Children) (Visits to Eritrea)
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Ms Barbara Mills (instructed by Bar Pro Bono Unit) for the Applicant Mother
Ms Poonam Bhari
(instructed by Veale Wasbrough Vizards LLP) for the Respondent Father

Hearing dates: 2nd - 4th July 2018
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Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.
.............................

MR JUSTICE WILLIAMS
This judgment was delivered in private.   The judge has given leave for this version of the judgment to be published on condition that (irrespective of what is contained in the judgment) in any published version of the judgment the anonymity of the children and members of their family must be strictly preserved.   All persons, including representatives of the media, must ensure that this condition is strictly complied with.   Failure to do so will be a contempt of court.

Mr Justice Williams :  
1. I am concerned with two girls N, who is nearly 11 and L who is 6. Their mother is represented by Ms Mills, counsel. Their father is represented by Ms Bhari.  The family are of Eritrean origin both the mother and father having left that country when they were children. The mother is now a British citizen. The father is a Dutch citizen. The girls had another sister, A, who tragically died of meningitis in 2009. The family's African origins lie at the heart of the applications which have come before me over the last three days for determination.

2. This is the second time the court has had to adjudicate upon a dispute between the mother and father in relation to their children. On 2 November 2015 Deputy District Judge Willbourne made an order by consent pursuant to which the children were to live with the mother in England and were to spend time with their father in the Netherlands for half of each of the main school holidays.

The Application and Issues for Determination

3. The principal application was issued by the mother on 14 July 2017. By that application the mother sought to amend an existing child arrangements order to enable her to move with the children to Ethiopia in time for the children to start school in September 2017. That application has been overtaken by the passage of time such that the mother now seeks permission to relocate with the children to Uganda in time for them to start school in September 2018. On the first day of this three-day final hearing I was told that the father now agreed to the children relocating to live in Uganda. It was also agreed that the children should continue to spend time with the father for half of the school Christmas, Easter and summer holidays. Further it was agreed that the children should have indirect contact twice a week by phone or Skype.  Subject to some other minor drafting type points the main substantive issues that remained to be determined are as follows

i) Should it be a precondition of the move that it could not take place until a mirror order was in place in the courts of Uganda?

ii) Should the father's obligation to meet the costs of travel for contact with him be limited to the children's air fares alone or should it also cover ancillary costs such as travel to the airport by taxi?

iii) Should the father have permission to take the children to Eritrea for one week during his time with the children?

iv) Should the children's passports be provided to the father when he spent time with the children.?

Procedural history
4. The mother's application came before Her Honour Judge Brasse on 27th July 2017 and on that occasion she gave directions for the filing of evidence and for Cafcass safeguarding checks to be carried out. At that time the court was concerned as to whether the father had been served as he was not represented at the hearing.

5. On 15 September 2017 the matter came before Her Honour Judge Brasse again who heard the matter and gave further directions. She made provision for the instruction of an expert to report on whether an English court order would be recognised in Eritrea and/or Ethiopia, whether there is a mechanism for an order to be reflected in a mirror order, whether such an order would be enforceable in Ethiopia or Eritrea and to address the issue of the ability and safety of the children and parents in moving between Ethiopia and Eritrea. She also directed that a Cafcass report be provided and listed the application for a pre-trial review on 20 December 2017. A final hearing was listed for the 10th 11th and 12th of January 2017.

6. As a result, it seems of liaison between Her Honour Judge Brasse and the Family Division Liaison Judge the applications were transferred to the High Court and came before me on 29 November 2017. It became clear that the Cafcass report had not been commissioned and that the expert, Dr Campbell, had indicated that some areas of the report requested were outside his expertise. I gave further directions in particular to seek to identify a suitably qualified legal practitioner in Ethiopia and Eritrea to file a report on the issues of recognition and enforcement of an English order.  I relisted the hearing for 6 February 2018.

7. The father filed his statement on 18 December 2017. In that statement he opposed the move of the children to Ethiopia on the basis that they were established in full-time education in the UK and that a move to Ethiopia on a long-term basis would be very disruptive for them. He also said that he was concerned about their safety and well-being in Ethiopia given the historic disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the risks to Eritreans living in Ethiopia.

8. In response to the father's concerns about the children moving to Ethiopia the mother amended her own plans. She said that given the father's reservations about the children moving to Ethiopia and the concerns he had expressed both about the state of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia and the difficulties he might face in travelling from Eritrea to Ethiopia for contact with them that she had reconsidered her position and now proposed to move to Uganda. She said that she had extended family in Uganda including her father who runs a business there. Her mother would also be moving to Uganda with her and they would be joining extended family all living in the same private estate and the children attending the same international school as other family members.

9. The mother's change of plan was communicated to the Cafcass officer Claire Brown on 2 January 2018 and so her report addressed that proposed move rather than the move to Ethiopia.

10. I vacated the hearing on 6 February 2018 at the request of the parties in order to enable them to adjust their preparations to reflect the mother's new plan for the children. I provided for the parties to identify a suitable legally qualified practitioner in Uganda and Eritrea to file and serve a report on the issues of recognition of English orders and their enforceability. I relisted the matter for final hearing.

This Hearing

11. The mother has, for significant parts of this litigation, acted as a litigant in person. The father has generally been represented by solicitors and counsel, however he has acted as a litigant in person from 23 February 2018 until 28 June 2018. For the purposes of this hearing the mother has instructed Ms Mills through the Bar Pro Bono Unit. The father has instructed Ms Bhari. I have been provided with a bundle of documents prepared by the mother although I had provided in my earlier order that the practice direction bundle should be prepared by the father's solicitors if the mother was in person. Ms Mills filed a position statement in advance of the hearing. Ms Bhari told me that she was only instructed late on Friday 29 June 2018 and she provided a position statement on Tuesday morning.

12. I have had the benefit of reading the court bundle in particular the mother's first and second statements, the father's first and second statements, the Cafcass report, the report by Dr Campbell dated 9 November 2017, a letter from Luzige, Lubega, Kavuma and Co, Advocates from Kampala dated 14 May 2018 and an explanation on Eritrea laws dated 28 June 2018 by Atakli Habtemariam Gebru a lecturer at the University of Asmara and ex-High Court judge. 

13. Dr Campbell attended court on 3rd of July and gave evidence in relation to his report. It was not possible for the Ugandan solicitor Mr Emmanuel to attend to give evidence either by phone or otherwise. Nor was it possible for Mr Gebru to attend to give evidence.

14. I heard oral evidence from both the mother and the father.

15. Due I think to the fractured legal representation of the parties Cafcass had not been informed of the date of this hearing and so Ms Brown the Cafcass officer had not been warned and was unable to attend to give evidence due to prior commitments. Given the main issue of substance to which her report was addressed, namely relocation to Uganda, was agreed this in the event did not present any obstacle to the conclusion of the case. Neither Ms Mills or Ms Bhari suggested that the matter should be adjourned for her to give evidence and I was satisfied that it was appropriate to proceed without her giving oral evidence.

The Legal Framework.
16. The welfare of N and L is my paramount consideration in determining the issues before me.  Section 1(2A) Children Act 1989 also applies. In determining the application, I must have regard to the welfare checklist in section 1 (3).

17. Given that the substantive application for relocation to Uganda is now agreed I do not intend to set out the law relating to permanent relocation. The welfare of the children is paramount and the fact that the parents have agreed to the relocation is a powerful indicator that such a move would be in their welfare interests. However that does not absolve the court of the task of considering whether on the evidence such a move is in their welfare interests. Having regard to the evidence I have read and heard I'm quite satisfied that it is in these children's best interests to relocate with their mother to Uganda to build a new life there. The mother is plainly dedicated to the children, capable, has made plans for the meeting of their physical, emotional and educational needs in Uganda and the children wish to go. The contact with their father can clearly be maintained at least at the current level and so it is in their interests to make the move.

18. Both Ms Mills and Ms Bhari agree that the court can and should exercise its jurisdiction to make child arrangements orders dealing with the time that the children are to have with their father.  Both are agreed that the correct approach is that set out in the cases relating to removals from the jurisdiction for holidays in non-Hague convention countries. Given this court is exercising substantive jurisdiction over the children based on their habitual residence and is contemplating the authorisation of the children spending time away from their primary carer with their father in Eritrea it seems to me that counsel's agreement on this approach must be correct.  The court is undertaking a welfare exercise of an identical nature to that which it would be undertaking if the father were seeking to take the children from the UK to Eritrea. The fact that the children will be based permanently in Uganda and the children will be taken from Uganda to Eritrea does not alter the essential nature of the evaluation but merely the evidence which is relevant to it. I did at the outset moot the possibility of it being more appropriate for the Ugandan court to determine this issue given they might have more direct experience of the issue given their geographical location. However enquiries with Mr Emmanuel disclosed that he had no direct experience of the Ugandan courts dealing with such applications or the movement of children from Uganda to Eritrea and back again in the context of family proceedings. In those circumstances it seems to me right for this court to determine the issue at this stage.

19. The leading authority is Re R (a child) [2013] EWCA Civ 1115 which draws on and considers the previous case law including Re K (removal from jurisdiction: practice) [1999] 2 FLR 1084 and Re M (removal from jurisdiction: adjournment) [2010] EWCA Civ 888.

20. Lord Justice Patten said as follows in re R

"the overriding consideration for the court in deciding whether to allow a parent to take a child to a non-Hague Convention country is whether the making of that order would be in the best interests of the child. Where (as in most cases) there is some risk of abduction and an obvious detriment to the child if that risk were to materialise the court has to be positively satisfied that the advantages to the child of her visiting that country outweigh the risks to her welfare which the visit will entail. This will therefore routinely involved the court in investigating what safeguards can be put in place to minimise the risk of retention and to secure the child's return if that transpires. Those safeguards should be capable of having a real and tangible effect in the jurisdiction in which they are to operate and be capable of being easily accessed by the UK-based parent".

21. All of the authorities emphasise the need for the court to consider within the paramount welfare evaluation three particular factors and to ensure that they are in focus at all times:

i) the magnitude of the risk of breach of the order if permission is given;

ii) the magnitude of the consequences of breach if it occurs; and

iii) the level of security that may be achieved by building into the arrangements all of the available safeguards.

22. In considering in particular iii) but also ii) the Court of Appeal has emphasised the importance of expert evidence in the evaluation process. Although not always required invariably it will be. That poses particular problems in this case given the limited nature of both the written expert evidence but also the inability of the parties or the court to test it.

The Parties Positions
23. On behalf of the mother Ms Mills makes the following essential points.

24. She invites me to prefer the evidence of the mother to that of the father where there is a dispute of fact. She says that the evidence overall supports the mother as being a more consistently reliable historian. In relation to the principal issues she says as follows

i) should it be a precondition of the move that it could not take place until a mirror order was in place in the courts of Uganda.

a) The mother says she should be allowed to relocate to enable the children to commence the new school term in Uganda towards the end of August. If a mirror order can be put in place by then all well and good but if it cannot be then the mother says that the priority must be to make the move and to allow the children to start the new school year in their new school. That will best promote their welfare.

b) Ms Mills says that the mother can be trusted to abide by the terms of the order which will require the children to spend time with their father at Christmas by which time the order probably will have been registered but in any event the mother can be trusted to ensure the contact takes place. Ms Mills places particular reliance on the mother's historic attitude to contact in particular the fact that she returned from Ethiopia on three occasions to enable the father to spend time with the children in England and Holland in 2013/14. She says she is proactive in booking flights and indeed even in the face of this contested litigation has booked and paid for the flights for the father's summer holiday contact which commences this Saturday.

c) She says the father's complaints about the mother are simply not justified. She says that the emails complaining about missed telephone calls in the course of 2016 hardly demonstrates a poor track record on the mother's part in ensuring the girls are available to have contact. She also says that the father's complaints that the mother did not allow contact in 2013 are not made out on the evidence. Rather she says it is clear that the mother did offer contact but the father, in a huff, had taken himself off to Holland and Eritrea and was declining to see both the mother and the children.

ii) Should the father's obligation to meet the costs of travel for contact with him be limited to the children's air fares alone or should it also cover ancillary costs such as travel to the airport by taxi.

a) The mother says that the father's financial position is opaque. She says she has to pay for getting to and from the airport, that she uses a taxi in the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the night because that is the most beneficial way of getting to and from the airport for the girls to enable them to spend a full day with the father at the beginning and conclusion of their holiday.

b) She says that it is only right that the father should bear the costs of these arrangements as he is the beneficiary.

c) In any event given that the father contributes nothing to the children's living costs, paying no maintenance whatsoever, she says that it is only fair that he should bear the costs of the time he spends with children.

iii) Should the father have permission to take the children to Eritrea for one week during his time with the children.

iv) Should the children's passports be provided to the father when he spent time with the children.

a) Ms Mills invites me to consider these issues together. She submits that the father should not be permitted to take the children to Eritrea and should not be provided with the passports.

b) The mother says that the risks of the father not returning the children from Eritrea, or if in possession of the children's passports in Europe of taking the children to Eritrea cannot be dismissed. In particular the mother says that the father's behaviour in January 2015 show him using the children as leverage to extract from the mother a favourable deal in respect of the ending of their marriage and the arrangements for the children. She says he is more interested in his rights than in the welfare of the children at times and that there is a not to be ignored possibility that he might retain the children in Eritrea if he felt that his rights were in issue. The mother also relies on the issue raised by Dr Campbell, namely the possibility that the state itself might step in to prevent the children leaving, they being entitled to Eritrean citizenship and being susceptible to compulsory conscription.

c) The mother says that the consequences of the children being retained in Eritrea would be huge. She recognises that her own loss of A contributes to her fear of being separated from the girls but that it has to be recognised that she has been the girls lifelong primary carer and that separation from her in Eritrea would be hugely harmful to the children. It is a country with which they are not familiar, their familiarity with language is limited, they have very few family members on either the paternal or maternal side there and it is a country which is not a modern democratic state but rather a one-party dictatorship with all the problems and risks that entails. The mother recognises that there are some benefits to the children in visiting Eritrea; being able to see their father's home and the factory and businesses he runs, seeing their paternal grandfather and step-grandmother in their home and getting exposure both to Asmara as a city and the language and culture would all be benefits. However the mother says that they are limited given the absence from that country of all of the extended family and the ability of the children to imbibe cultural and linguistic aspects of Eritrean life from their extended family in other countries.

d) Ms Mills in particular emphasises that there really is no security at all either in place or available in Eritrea. The father has offered no financial security. He has not offered to get an order registered in the Eritrea courts. Ms Mills says that the explanation on Eritrean laws gives rise to substantial doubt as to whether the system allows for the equivalent of a mirror order or advance registration. She emphasises that the explanation addresses the question of execution of judgments which suggests a process which would take place after the event of an abduction. In that case Ms Mills relies on the uncertainty in Mr Gebru's report as to whether in fact an English order could be executed given the uncertainty over whether an Eritrean judgment could be executed in the UK. Ms Mills says there is a complete absence of security.

25. On behalf of the father Ms Bhari makes the following essential points.

i) Should it be a precondition of the move that it could not take place until a mirror order was in place in the courts of Uganda?

a) There is a complete lack of trust between the father and mother arising from the mother taking the children to Ethiopia without the father's consent in 2013. The father says that this was an abduction and that the mother cannot be trusted to adhere to the terms of any order I make and thus prior to the move taking place this order must be registered or mirrored in Uganda.

b) The father says the mother has not been reliable in relation to contact historically. He says that she prevented any contact during 2012 despite him asking for it and that she has been unreliable in relation to telephone contact not ensuring that the girls are available when they are supposed to be and not communicating in advance to notify him of their lack of availability.

c) The father says there are no welfare disadvantages in deferring the move until it is registered. He says that the mother has made arrangements to ensure the children are back in English schools if the move does not take place prior to September and that their places in the Ugandan school remain available.

ii) Should the father's obligation to meet the costs of travel for contact with him be limited to the children's air fares alone or should it also cover ancillary costs such as travel to the airport by taxi.

a) The father says that he was essentially wiped out financially after 2011. He says he spent his redundancy on subsidising the mother whilst she was on maternity leave. He says that his 70% pay was also expended in meeting debts and that he lost his house in Switzerland. Hhe says that he is earning modest sums within his father's business and that it is not reasonable for the mother to take taxis and expect him to pay for them.

b) He says he should have a say in the time of travel and on the flights to ensure that the best value deals are obtained and that his costs are kept to a minimum. He would like the arrangements to be made three months in advance.

iii) Should the father have permission to take the children to Eritrea for one week during his time with the children.

iv) Should the children's passports be provided to the father when he spends time with the children.

a) The father says that the expert evidence in relation to the risks of travel to and from Eritrea does not substantiate a real risk of the children being detained in Eritrea if they travel there. He points out that Dr Campbell accepted that his own student who is of conscription age had been able to travel in and out of Eritrea frequently without being detained. The father also prays in aid the fact that both he and the mother and Naomi and other family members and children have been able to travel in and out of Eritrea without difficulty. Thus Ms Bhari says that Dr Campbell's academic experience does not match the real world and that I should not place any real reliance on his assessment of the risks to the children of the state intervening, refusing an exit visa or requiring that the children undertake conscription.

b) The father says he has never sought to remove the children from the mother's care, rather he trusts her with almost the entirety of their care and that therefore there is no risk of him seeking to take on their care himself.

c) He says that were he to retain the children in Eritrea the consequences for him would be appalling; he might become a fugitive, he would be unable to travel in Europe and might be shunned by his family. He would therefore not place himself in such a position.

d) The father particularly emphasises the benefits to the children and their exposure to Eritrean life and culture. They would visit his house, see his father, see their step-grandmother and be able to see their maternal great-grandmother who lives nearby.

e) Ms Bhari notes that Ms Brown the Cafcass officer noted there are 'no safeguarding concerns about his care of N and L to suggest that he would make any decisions that may place them at risk of harm. My opinion is that this would be a positive experience for N and L and they should spend time with him in Eritrea. She also notes that the children would like to see the father's house.

f) The father says the mother's offer to allow the children to go in three years' time is illogical. The risks then would be the same as they are now. The fact that the children are then older and are able to say what they want to the Eritrean court if it came to that makes no real difference.

g) The father says he needs the passports for various reasons when he is in Holland. He may require them to fly to Euro-Disney or to Germany. He says the children have missed out on trips because they did not have their passports. He says he may need them for identification reasons, in particular in relation to medical treatment and that he requires them for checking into hotels and suchlike.

h) Overall Ms Bhari says the father should be trusted by the court to act in the children's welfare interests and that the balance shows that it would be more beneficial to them to travel to Eritrea and for the father to have access to their passports than any detriment arising out of any risks.

The Family History and the Evidence
26. Although the factual issues between the parties are relatively narrow they do exist. In approaching the evidence, I determine any disputed matter on the balance of probabilities; i.e. is it more likely than not that an event occurred, or occurred as described by the mother or father. In considering the evidence I have to consider the credibility of the parties by reference to the consistency of their account internally, consistency with other known facts, whether they have a motive to exaggerate or suppress the truth and how they gave their account. I remind myself that a person may lie about one matter but may be reliable on other matters.

27. The mother came across as an open, consistent and child-centred witness. In her oral evidence she was open and frank, with a tendency to give too much detail rather than to suppress information. Her description of events over the course of 2012 was spontaneous, detailed and had a ring of authenticity to it. Her account tied in with contemporary documents in particular for instance the emails in 2014. She is clearly dedicated to the children. That she amended her planned move to Ethiopia to take account of the father's concerns indicates that she is willing to compromise and to take account of other people's views. Overall I considered her to be an honest witness, occasionally in error as to dates, but generally to be relied upon.

28. The father was far less straightforward as a witness. His opening line was that he lived in Holland. On closer examination it became quite clear that he does not live in Holland but rather he lives most of his time in Eritrea at least eight or nine months a year but visits Holland extensively combining his time there with his visits to see the children, with business and with visiting extended family. He was far less comfortable giving evidence, was far less open and often sought to avoid giving a straight answer and was on occasions under cross examination by Ms Mills argumentative. He was much less spontaneous with detail and at times I found it very hard to follow the logic in what he was saying. In particular in relation to the alleged family trips in Europe to Germany or Euro-Disney I was unable to grasp what the father's case actually was. I got the impression that he was improvising. His evidence in relation to the children was far less child-centred. He appeared to be preoccupied at times with his rights and appeared to resent the mother exercising any form of control over him. However he appeared not to recognise the imposition on the mother of not permitting her to live where she chose whilst having complete freedom himself to live where he chose. I do not consider the father to be a reliable witness, but rather someone who is capable of moulding his evidence to suit his ultimate goals. That is not to say that I consider that he would deliberately harm the children in any way. He plainly loves them and they love him. However I detect a very strong streak of pride and determination in him which may at times lead him to insist upon his strict rights thus obscuring his focus on the children's welfare. His approach to the children starting school in Uganda in September of this year but also his approach to his right in January 2015 are prime examples of this.

29. Thus in general where there is a dispute between the father and the mother over the history I prefer the mother's evidence

30. Turning now then to the chronology, within which I will incorporate my conclusions on such of the disputed matters of fact is exist.

Mar 1969

F born in Eritrea

May 1973

M born in Eritrea

 

?? F moves to Holland as a child

 

M moves to England as a child

2002

M and F meet in Africa

2004

F works for Acer in Switzerland having relocated from Holland

M moves to London when pregnant with A.

Parties marry in London

F's work moves to Switzerland.

Thereafter the pattern of the family's life was that the mother and children lived in London whilst the father lived in Switzerland. The mother worked as a schoolteacher and so the family was reunited during school holidays, I think mainly in Switzerland although also in London. This somewhat unconventional arrangement continued for financial reasons until the parties separated.

2005

A born in London.

2007

N born in London

2009

A dies of meningitis in London

Spring/Summer 2011

M and N travel to Eritrea for family holiday. No difficulty entering or leaving

2011

L born

F is made redundant

2012

As a result of the father's redundancy M and F discuss F relocating to London from Switzerland which is he does not wish to do.   They therefore looked at other options in particular relocating to Africa which was something they had been thinking about as a long-term goal for some time. The father was clear in his oral evidence that he only considered relocating to Eritrea. He said in terms that this was what the parties had decided they would do. However he then conceded that the mother was not happy that Eritrea should be the only option and so it was agreed that she would travel in the Summer to explore the possibilities.  M goes to Uganda and Eritrea for 2 weeks. F cares for children in Switzerland. Upon the mother's return she proposes family relocate to Uganda. The father was not happy with this he preferring Eritrea. His father already owned a business there which he wanted to become involved in. In September F travels to Eritrea and on return again proposed family relocate to Eritrea. No agreement reached; M prefers options her father and family can offer in Uganda and F prefers option his family can offer in Eritrea. In December M travelled  to Eritrea. I believe this was because the mother was seeking to find a compromise, she being far more flexible in her approach than the father. However after having looked at matters on the ground in Eritrea she concluded she would not wish to relocate the children and herself there. On M's return, F was very cross that the mother had refused to agree a move to Eritrea. The father left the family home that day. It was quite clear from his evidence that he viewed this as a breach of what he considered was an agreement to relocate to Eritrea. It is clear from the M's evidence she had never agreed to move to Eritrea but rather had agreed to consider Eritrea.  I accept the mother's account the father returned to Holland very angry that his plan had not been accepted.

Jan 2013

F travels to Eritrea

Feb 2013

During the school half term the mother says she proposed she and children travel to see F for that holiday but F says he is busy.

The father belatedly said in evidence that he wanted them to come but she refused.

I prefer the Mother's evidence.

Having seen the father give evidence I'm quite satisfied that he was being difficult he being offended that the mother had not agreed to relocate to Eritrea. He was cutting off his nose to spite his face. I'm satisfied that the mother was willing to bring the children to Holland but that the father said he was too busy.

Easter 2013

I'm satisfied that the same situation arose and that the M proposed she and children travel to see F for Easter and the F again said he is busy.

In consequence the father did not see his children for four months at this time, prioritise in his pride over their welfare needs. He did continue to have telephone contact but this is no substitute for face-to-face contact particularly with children as young as L was at this point in time.

Summer 2013

At some point in the summer of 2013 the father made the move to Eritrea.

I accept that the M was unable to contact F in Eritrea and he is not around to see the children. Whether this is because he was being difficult, or whether he had not provided contact details because the mother was only contacting Holland I cannot determine.

The father's evidence on this was most unusual. He says he was in contact with the girls roughly twice weekly prior to going but that he didn't tell the mother (or presumably the girls) because she already knew he was moving to Eritrea as it had been agreed by her previously. This illustrates both his inability to accommodate any other view than his own and how difficult he could be even if it meant sacrificing the children's welfare to his own pride.

 

Given the father was not seeing the children in England and had relocated to Eritrea it is hardly surprising that the mother chose to pursue a relocation to Africa herself. Given that he was providing not a penny of financial support to the mother was an additional reason for her seeking to rely on her own resources in order to build a stable life for herself and children. Given that it would bring the children closer to where the father was in practical terms was a benefit.

I accept that the mother did not obtain the father's consent and in legal terms it may have been a wrongful removal although it might well have been argued that the father had given up the exercise of his rights of custody given his behaviour over the preceding months.

In any event the net result was that M relocates and children enter school in Ethiopia and she starts work. They developed a new life in Ethiopia. The fact that they continue to mention the existence of a dog to the Cafcass officer and missing him indicates in a small way the extent to which they became settled in Ethiopia.

I accept that there was a period of time when the father was unable to communicate with the mother as a result of this move. I do not accept that it was for as long as three months that may have been more like six weeks. M says she was unable to contact him and she left her contact details with sister who gave them to H as soon as he contacted the family flat. There plainly was contact taking place by about October because arrangements were made for the children to return to London in order to see their father.

Dec 2013

E-mail: F-M about contact

Contact in London at M's home and M vacates her flat to allow him to stay.  By this time the children had not seen their father for a year. For L this was an incredibly long time and she must have felt very unfamiliar around him. I accept that the mother took steps to ensure that the children were able to really engage appropriately with the father.

Easter 2014

Contact in London. M returns from Ethiopia for holiday and F has contact

Summer 2014

Contact in London. The mother again returned to London to ensure that contact took place. I accept what the mother says about L wouldn't go with the father and he had to bring her back in order to get her help. I thought the father's assertion that he could not recall this was not the truth. This is another example of the mother promoting contact in her account being more reliable than that of the father

Dec 2014

M proposes contact in London. F seeks contact in Holland so children can see PGM. M says she will take. F wants passports and to take children himself. M refuses.

M takes them to Holland and settles L for 2-3 days

F says M insisted on supervising.

4 Jan 2015

E-mail: F-M:

In this letter the father says this

"...it is imperative that this separation agreement get settled before you go back to Ethiopia. If you go to Ethiopia without settling this issue, or at least know where we stand with the matter of the children, I will have but no choice to go via a lawyer and will instruct the lawyer that I haven't given you the permission nor that I agree that you take the children away from me to Ethiopia. It is all about the kids, we need to settle this matter for the sake of the children make sure that they get to spend quality time with me without the supervision. The father sent a copy of a separation agreement with that which included that any change in the residence of the children can't and shouldn't be made without his consent, that he is to visit the children at any time which will be agreed beforehand, there will be no country restriction as to where I can spend or take my children during their holidays..."

The tone of both the letter and the separation agreement are autocratic.

 

The net effect of this letter and the mother's refusal to agree to its demands was that the father refused to allow the children to return to their home in Ethiopia. Thus having travelled to London for a holiday in the full expectation that they would return to their schools, home and environment in Ethiopia they ended up back in England having to put together their lives here again.  Given that the father had done nothing to require the children's return from Ethiopia between the end of 2013 and the end of 2014 and had thus acquiesced in their making their home in Ethiopia the mother would have been within her legal rights to have returned immediately to Ethiopia. However again perhaps because of erroneous legal advice but I conclude also because the mother seeks to find a consensual way forward with the father if at all possible she accepted she should remain here until the matter was concluded. In the event it took until November 2015 before a court order was agreed and even then it did not provide for her to relocate with the children back to Ethiopia.

Nov 2015

Court order

2015-2018

In the years since that order was made the girls have made their lives in England again along with the mother. They have reintegrated into their school (it being interesting to note that their English school observed that N's performance had improved following her period of time in private education in Ethiopia). The children have seen their father in Holland on a regular basis for a week at Christmas, for a week at Easter and for half of the summer holidays spending time with their extended paternal family, aunts and uncles and cousins in Holland. They have also been able to see their grandfather and step-grandmother in Holland. I do not accept the father's account of the supposedly difficulties is which he says he either has or will face in Holland in relation to the passports. As I've already said I found it difficult to follow his evidence in relation to the family trips to Germany or Disney. Within the Schengen area travel documents would not be required being a borderless area. As a Dutch citizen I do not understand how the father would face difficulties accessing health or other resources in Holland and nor do I see why he would need to produce passports to check into a hotel.

 



The Expert Evidence
31. Dr Campbell's report and his oral evidence were ultimately only of relatively limited assistance. He is not an expert in Ethiopian or Eritrean law. He is an anthropologist and has expertise in the state of the country and in particular in relation to human rights issues. He expressed concerns about the ability of the Eritrean legal system to recognise and enforce a foreign order. He noted that the courts were not independent of the executive, and all judges were appointed by the executive. In particular he was concerned that the children as Eritrean citizens might be subject to both exit controls and to the risk of conscription. Having heard the mother's evidence and the father's evidence and Dr Campbell's acceptance that his knowledge of the laws of Eritrea had to be judged in context of real-life experience it seems to me that the risks to the children of the state interfering in their lives either by refusing an exit Visa or by conscription are limited. Dr Campbell noted that there had been positive developments in the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia and thus travel may becoming easier and the risk of conflict less. However it is quite clear from his evidence that Eritrea remains a one-party state with none of the normal checks and balances in a modern democracy and where the courts cannot be viewed as truly independent of the executive. The risk of sudden changes in attitude of the authorities cannot therefore be ruled out.

32. The evidence of Mr Emanuel, the Ugandan lawyer, was that the reciprocal enforcement of judgments act provides for the enforcement in Uganda of judgments made in the UK and that section 2 of that Act emphasises that where judgment has been obtained in a superior court (i.e. the High Court) in the UK the judgment creditor may apply to the High Court of Uganda within 12 months after the date of judgment for the judgment to be registered and executed. He also notes that the Foreign Judgments (Reciprocal Enforcement) (General Application) Order 35/2002 reinforces that position. He confirmed that such an application did not require the children to be present in Uganda and that the process could commence shortly after an order was made by this court. He noted that the cost would be US$2000. He also observed that the vacation period is due to commence for a month running from 15 July and that in order to push the process through during vacation it would cost a further US$500. The net effect of his evidence is that it seems highly probable that any order I make will be registered and enforced by the Ugandan courts will but the time frame that cannot be guaranteed.

33. The evidence of Mr Gebru on Eritrean law is that the courts of Eritrea are able to execute foreign judgments and awards. Articles 456 to 461 of the Transitional Civil Procedure Code make provision for this. There are five conditions for allowing an application. Firstly that the execution of Eritrean judgment is allowed in the country in which the judgment to be executed was given. Mr Gebru observes that the other four conditions are likely to be fulfilled at but there is an issue over the first condition I have just outlined. There is of course no reciprocal enforcement arrangement between Eritrea and England and Wales although an application could be made under the inherent jurisdiction relating to children for recognition of an Eritrean children order; although that would only be recognised by the English court if it was satisfied following its own evaluation that the order itself was in the welfare interests of the child. Ms Mills notes that the terminology in Mr Gebru's report relating as it does to execution creates an issue over whether advance recognition, registration or a mirror order can be obtained. It appears that the process would not be lengthy or expensive according to Mr Gebru's evidence.

Cafcass

34. Ms Brown's report was primarily focused on the question of relocation to Uganda. However the report also contains the following material which is relevant to the issues before me.

i) The children speak English as a first language and present as confident polite and engaging.

ii) The people who are important to them are their mum, dad, grandparents and friends. They both chose happy faces for their mum and their dad.  They recalled positive memories of spending time with both of their parents.

iii) Both children recalled memories of living in Ethiopia with their mother. N talked about her dog and how she missed him. They were very excited about moving to Uganda.

iv) Both children spoke of having a close relationship with their father and that he was an important person in their lives which suggested to Ms Brown that they have some consistency in speaking to him on the phone.

v) Both parents confirmed that they communicate well to ensure that the agreed spending time arrangements are complied with.

vi) Ms Brown observes that Eritrea is the country of the children's origins and where their father lives and works and that they also have extended family members who they can spend time with. Ms Brown observes that the father moves freely in and out of Eritrea, presents as a caring father who would not place the children in a potentially dangerous situation.

vii) N wrote a letter to me in which she writes 'Dear Judge I would like to live in Uganda from N'. L is too young really to understand the proceedings.

viii) Ms Brown observes that the children experience safe and loving care from both of their parents. They need to be protected from experiencing any further adversity in the future.

ix) Ms Brown opines that spending time in Eritrea with their father would be a positive experience for them and given her views of the father and the risks he poses she recommended that the children be allowed to spend one week per year in Eritrea.

Welfare Evaluation
35. Turning then to my evaluation of the welfare of the children having regard to the issues in play.

(a) the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of their age and understanding);

I accept that the children would probably like to visit the father and his home in Eritrea and to see Asmara and experience the life the father lives in Eritrea. I do not believe they would have any views in relation to the other issues in play although no doubt they would wish to be able to undertake other activities for instance Euro-Disney or to visit Germany with their father and the extended family.
 
(b) their physical, emotional and educational needs;

I accept that the children have an emotional need and indeed an educational need to gain further exposure to Eritrean life and culture and in particular their father's life.

c) the likely effect on them of any change in their circumstances;

The effect of the children visiting Eritrea and returning to their mother's primary care in Uganda will only be a beneficial one. The effect on them of not being returned to their mother's care would be immensely harmful psychologically. They have always been cared for by their mother and have never lived with their father, or in Eritrea.
 
(d) their age, sex, background and any characteristics of the children which the court considers relevant;

The children are of an age where they would be very vulnerable to unplanned changes. They have already experienced a sudden change in their living arrangements when they were forced to remain in England in January 2015.
 
(e) any harm which the children have suffered or are at risk of suffering;

The magnitude of the risks which face the children if they visit Eritrea are different depending on what risk one considers. I consider the risks of the children being denied an exit Visa or of being subjected to compulsory conscription in Eritrea to be very low having regard to the reality of the family's ability to travel into and out of Eritrea and to avoid conscription. However it is not non-existent, and given the nature of Eritrea as a state there is always the possibility of sudden change. I also consider the risk of the father retaining the children in Eritrea to be low but not non-existent. There are a number of instances of the father prioritising his rights over the children's welfare in particular in January 2015 when he was prepared to uproot the children from the lives they had embedded themselves in in Ethiopia in order to insist on a separation agreement or a court dictated outcome as to their future. I have no doubt that this was harmful to them and was a significant failing in the father's ability to prioritise the children's welfare. There are other instances, not least the father cutting off the children when he didn't get his own way over the relocation to Eritrea. I therefore have to consider that there is a possibility that for reasons of his own the father might see some advantage in keeping the children in Eritrea in order to extract some concession from the mother in some shape or form.

The risk to the children of emotional harm if the father took such a course is huge. Depending on how long the situation were to exist for it might be capable of amelioration but one cannot underestimate the potential impact of such a radical change in their situation.

In any event there is no security at all that the father offers or that can on the balance of probabilities be achieved in Eritrea to ensure that if the children visit they will return. It is not clear whether a mirror order could be obtained and the father offers no financial security.

(f) how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting their needs;

I consider the mother to be fully capable of meeting all of the children's physical, emotional and educational needs. In particular she is capable of recognising and fulfilling their emotional need for for a relationship with their father as he will permit.

I consider the father is fully capable of meeting the children's physical needs and partially meeting their emotional and educational needs. He is not sufficiently focused on the children, and that may be a reflection of the fact that he has not been an integral component of their lives but has lived away in a different country for the majority of their young lives. He chose to move to Eritrea alone rather than to pursue a course which would have led to him being more involved in their lives. This is another indication of him doing what suits him rather than what suits the children. I appreciate there may be practical limitations on his ability to work in certain countries but his leaving on his own in December 2012 and moving to Eritrea did not prioritise the children. There are therefore limitations in his capability.

(g) the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question

I can make an order with a condition precedent in respect of the registration of the English order.

I could make an order which permitted visits to Eritrea, a mirror order were made there or if the father were to provide security.

Conclusion
36. Returning then to the issues before me.

37. I consider that the mother will promote contact with the father whether or not an order is registered in the courts of Uganda. My conclusions on her ability to focus on the children and their need for a relationship with their father more than satisfies me that she will ensure the contact with the father takes place whether or not an order is registered in the Ugandan courts. In order to ensure that a regime is in place though I will require that the order is registered in Uganda. I do not consider that it needs to be done before the mother and children leave.  It is plainly in their welfare interests to commence school at the beginning of term rather than to play catch up both in terms of lessons but also friendship groups by joining after the beginning of term. This is another example of the father's inability to see it from the children's point of view. The costs of registering the order shall be shared. If the father wants to expedite it he should be responsible for the additional £500 cost of doing so.

38. The arrangements for contact should be determined three months in advance. Once the dates have been settled in accordance with the formula which has worked over the past few years and the father and mother can exchange details as to the flight possibilities and the father can select the flights. Given that he pays nothing towards the maintenance of the children he should be responsible for all of the costs of the children's travel.

39. In relation to travel to Eritrea and the father having the passports it will be evident from my evaluation of the three Re R conditions that the existence of a risk of the children not returning from Eritrea combined with the magnitude of the consequences, and the absence of security strongly point away from granting permission. The welfare benefits to the children of visiting Eritrea clearly exist but they are limited in extent given the fact that their extended paternal family primarily lives in Holland or elsewhere and they are able to experience Eritrean culture away from Eritrea. I therefore consider that the welfare balance falls clearly against granting permission to the father to take the children to Eritrea. I do not consider that making a conditional order (on the condition that the father obtained a mirror order and provided security in Eritrea) would be appropriate given the state of the evidence. Nor do I consider that it is appropriate to make provision for the children to visit in three years' time. I believe the mother's concession that she would be prepared to agree to this was driven by her desire to seek compromise with the father where possible. I accept that her anxiety plays a part in her assessment of whether it is safe for the children to visit Eritrea. Losing A when she was four years old was a tragedy. For the mother as A's primary carer I do not underestimate the impact this has on her thinking. However viewed objectively the risks clearly outweigh the benefits at the present time, I do not believe it is appropriate to pre-determine whether the children should visit at any point in the future. If that issue arises it will have to be determined in the Ugandan courts having regard to the children's wishes and feelings and the risk balance at that point in time.

40. In relation to the provision of the passports to the father I do not accept the father's reasons for wishing to have those documents. I think the reality is that the father wishes to have them in order to achieve some sort of parity with the mother; it is a rights issue not a practicalities issue. Within the Schengen area he should be able to travel without restriction and I see no need for him to have the passports for identification reasons. As a Dutch citizen and with this order or a travel consent form he should be to travel freely to Euro-Disney Germany or anywhere else within the Schengen area. Providing him with the passports opens a window to possible action by him which is not child-centred and which could have significant consequences for the children. I do not consider that there is sufficient advantage in him having the passports to take that risk.