Britain to get tough on child snatching

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The Independent Online
The Government responded yesterday to the growing problem of child abduction with proposals to speed up the return of illegally snatched children and stronger court powers.

The move to lobby for greater co-operation from foreign governments comes in the run-up to next spring's international review of the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, which is now regarded as lacking sufficient teeth.

Launching a consultation document outlining a dozen improvements for consideration by the 43 states, Gary Streeter, parliamentary secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department, said the Government was concerned by the rising number of cases and the failure of some countries to enforce court orders.

Last year, 156 applications were made for the return of children to England and Wales and 158 applications to England and Wales from other countries, involving 488 children. In 1994 the respective figures were 130 and 128, involving 370 children.

Reunite, the advice charity for parents of abducted children, puts the figure much higher. Rachel Roberts, the organisation's researcher, estimates that closer to 1,000 a year are involved, mostly taken from the United Kingdom either through a snatch by the non- custodial parent or the failure to return after a visit abroad. Another 1,000 parents who fear their children will be abducted take preventive action, such as having them made wards of court and asking the police to arrange port alerts.

Mr Streeter said the priorities for the Special Commission of the Hague conference next March was to persuade convention states to improve enforcement, provide legal aid and draw up best-practice guidelines.

Although in the largest number of abductions children are taken to the United States and Ireland, particular problems in retrieving them have emerged in Germany, where cases are heard by the lowest tier of local court, staffed by provincial judges. In the case of Catherine Laylle, which has become a cause celebre after a two-year legal battle, a German judge refused to recognise a British High Court order giving her custody of her two sons. The court ruled that the mother, who has now complained to the European Commission on Human Rights, would be be allowed to visit her sons for just three hours a month in the presence of a lawyer and communicate only in German.

About half all abduction cases are estimated by Reunite to involve countries which are not signatories to the convention, which means parents must begin entirely new legal proceedings abroad, often without any legal aid and within hostile legal and political systems.