Article 24 - The rights of the child
1) The case originated in an application (no. 27853/09) against the Republic of Latvia lodged with the Court under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention”) by a Latvian national, Ms X (“the applicant”), on 8 May 2009. The President of the Grand Chamber authorised, of his own motion, the non-disclosure of the applicant’s identity (Rule 47 § 3 of the Rules of Court).
3) The applicant alleged that, on account of the decision by the Latvian courts to order her daughter’s return to Australia, in application of the Hague Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, she had been the victim of an infringement of her right to respect for her family life within the meaning of Article 8 of the Convention.
9) The applicant was born in 1974 and now resides in Australia. She is a Latvian national, who, in 2007, also acquired Australian nationality.
10) After meeting T. and beginning a relationship with him at the beginning of 2004, she moved into his flat at the end of that year, although she was still married to another man, R.L., whom she divorced on 24 November 2005.
11) On 9 February 2005 the applicant gave birth to a daughter, E. The child’s birth certificate does not give the father’s name, and no paternity test was carried out. The applicant, who was still living with T., subsequently received single-parent benefits. In spite of the deterioration in their relationship, the applicant continued to live with T. as a tenant.
12) On 17 July 2008 the applicant left Australia for Latvia with her daughter, then aged three years and five months.
13) On 19 August 2008 T. submitted an application to the Family Court in Australia to establish his parental rights in respect of the child. In support of his claim, he testified in a sworn affidavit that he had been in a relationship with the applicant since 2004 and the latter had always indicated that he was the father of the child, the rental agreement with the applicant for the flat was a sham and had been a mutual decision, and he had made false statements to the social security services in order to enable the applicant to receive single-parent benefit. T. asserted that the applicant had left Australia with the child without his consent, in violation of Article 3 of the Hague Convention, and had gone to an unknown place of residence in Latvia. In support of his claim, he submitted e-mail correspondence with members of his family.
14) The applicant, although apparently invited by various means to attend the hearing or follow it by telephone, was not present.
15) By a judgment of 6 November 2008, the Australian Family Court recognised T.’s paternity in respect of E. and held that the applicant and T. had had joint parental responsibility for their child since her birth. The judge added that examination of the case would be continued once the child had been returned to Australia, while stating as follows: “... however, it is not of course for me to say whether the child’s presence in Latvia is the consequence of a wrongful removal or retention. With all due respect, it is for the Latvian judge to rule on that question.”
16) The applicant did not appeal against that decision.
17) On 22 September 2008 the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, which was the Latvian Central Authority responsible for implementing the Hague Convention, received from their Australian counterpart a request from T. seeking the child’s return to Australia on the basis of that Convention. The return request was accompanied by a sworn affidavit setting out the applicable Australian law and certifying, without prejudice to the issue of paternity, that on the date on which the child had been removed from Australia T. had exercised joint parental authority over her within the meaning of Article 5 of the Hague Convention.
21) By a judgment of 19 November 2008, the District Court granted T.’s request and ordered that the child be returned to Australia immediately and, in any event, not later than six weeks after its decision. In its reasoning, noting that the Australian courts had established that the applicant and T. exercised joint parental responsibility, the court held, firstly, that the Latvian courts could neither reverse that decision, nor interpret and apply the Australian law. It further held that, in application of Articles 1 and 14 of the Hague Convention, the Latvian courts did not have jurisdiction to rule on T.’s parental responsibility for the child, but only on the child’s departure from Australia and her possible return. It considered that the child’s removal had been wrongful and had been carried out without T.’s consent. As to the application of Article 13 of the Hague Convention, it held, in the light of photographs and copies of e-mails between the applicant and T.’s relatives, that he had cared for the child prior to her departure for Latvia. While noting that witness statements referred to arguments between the parties and to the fact that T. had behaved irascibly towards the applicant and the child, it held that this did not enable it to conclude that T. had not taken care of the child. Lastly, the court dismissed as unfounded the allegation that the child’s return posed a risk of psychological harm.
30) On 14 March 2009 T. met the applicant and E. unexpectedly near a shopping centre. Taking advantage of this situation, he took E. and drove her to Tallinn (Estonia), then began the return journey to Australia. On 16 March 2009 the Latvian Central Authority, in response to a request from its Estonian counterpart and with a view to authorising T. to take a flight to Helsinki, supplied information concerning T.’s right to return to Australia with his daughter.
31) A complaint subsequently filed by the applicant for abduction was dismissed, as was a disciplinary appeal against the Latvian Central Authority; the applicant’s request for a stay of execution of the return order became devoid of purpose.
32) In September 2009 the Australian Family Court set aside all prior decisions relating to the parents’ rights and ruled that T. had sole parental responsibility for the child. While prohibiting the applicant from making any public statement about matters concerning the child or T., it authorised her to visit her daughter under the supervision of a social worker. The court also prohibited her from speaking to the child in Latvian and ruled that, until the child reached the age of eleven, the applicant was restrained from visiting or communicating by any means with any childcare facility, pre-school or school attended by her daughter, or with a parent of any other child attending the same institution.
33) Before the Grand Chamber, the Government, referring to an article published in the Latvian press in October 2011 which contained, in particular, statements by the applicant’s sister, indicated that the applicant had returned to live in Australia, had found accommodation and was working in a State welfare institution. They also noted that she was in regular contact with her daughter, meeting her twice a week in a welfare centre, and that she had been able to see her without a social worker being present.
Outcome of the case:
For these reasons, the Court
1. Holds, by nine votes to eight, that there has been a violation of Article 8 of the Convention;
2. Holds, by ten votes to seven,
(a) that the respondent State is to pay the applicant, within three months, EUR 2,000 (two thousand euros) in respect of costs and expenses, plus any tax that may be chargeable to the applicant, to be converted into Latvian lati at the rate applicable on the date of settlement;
(b) that from the expiry of the above-mentioned three months until settlement simple interest shall be payable on the above amount at a rate equal to the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank during the default period plus three percentage points;
3. Dismisses, unanimously, the remainder of the applicant’s claim for just satisfaction.
97) The same philosophy is inherent in the Hague Convention, which associates this interest with restoration of the status quo by means of a decision ordering the child’s immediate return to his or her country of habitual residence in the event of unlawful abduction, while taking account of the fact that non-return may sometimes prove justified for objective reasons that correspond to the child’s interests, thus explaining the existence of exceptions, specifically in the event of a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation (Article 13, first paragraph, (b)). The Court further notes that the European Union subscribes to the same philosophy, in the framework of a system involving only European Union member States and based on a principle of mutual trust. The Brussels II bis Regulation, whose rules on child abduction supplement those already laid down in the Hague Convention, likewise refers in its Preamble to the best interests of the child (see paragraph 42 above), while Article 24 § 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights emphasises that in all actions relating to children the child’s best interests must be a primary consideration (see paragraph 41 above).