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Child Abduction: Children and the Law

Our People - Olivia Allen
6 January, 2023

What is child abduction?

Child abduction is when a person takes or sends a child under the age of 16 out of the UK without the consent of those with parental responsibility or consent from the court.

Someone with parental responsibly, who is also named in a Child Arrangements Order as the person with whom the child can live, can legally take or send the child outside of the UK without the appropriate consent for up to 28 days.

If someone has a Special Guardianship Order for the child, they can lawfully take or send the child outside of the UK without the appropriate consent for up to 3 months.

If you are not named in either such order, even with parental responsibility, you must have the consent of anyone else with parental responsibility or consent from the court before taking the child outside the UK.

What can I do if I fear child abduction (but it hasn’t happened yet)

Are you worried your child might be taken abroad without your consent? If so, you could consider the following:

  1. Ask your local police to issue a ‘Port Alert’ if your child is likely to be taken abroad (within 48 hours) without the appropriate consent. The police can then contact the National Border Targeting Centre and ask them to alert all points of departure from the UK (like ports and airports), to try to prevent the child from being taken out of the country. This will apply for 28 days to give you time to get legal advice about your options. 
  2. You can apply to the court for a prohibited steps order. This imposes a restriction on a parent or other holder of parental responsibility that prevents them from doing something without the consent of the court. They may be used, for example, to prevent a parent from taking a child abroad.

How to apply to court for a Prohibited Steps Order

To make the application to court you will need to fill out a C100 form, which you can either complete online or download a form and fill in. There is a fee for submission of the form, which is currently £232. If you are on low-income and/or in receipt of benefits, you can apply for a fee exemption by also submitting the form EX160.

If it is an emergency application, you should indicate this on the form so that the court is aware. The court can then list it for a hearing much quicker than usual. However, you have to explain why it is an emergency case.

Once the form/s are completed, send them to your local family court (unless you have completed them online).

You can instruct a family lawyer to assist you with this, or represent yourself. However, please consider that once a matter is in court it is very important that you comply with court orders on time, and in the correct manner. There may be cost implications for doing something wrong, whether you intended to or not. As such we would strongly advise that if you are able to afford it, or you can get Legal Aid, you seek a solicitor’s advice before making any application to court.

Not everyone is automatically allowed to make an application for a Prohibited Steps Order. For example, anyone with parental responsibility for a child automatically has a right to apply for a Prohibited Steps Order, but if you do not have parental responsibility, you would need to first make an application to court seeking permission to do so. We would recommend seeking further legal advice should you fall into this second category. 

Before making the application

Prior to making the application to court, you should first attend a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) with a mediator, unless it is an emergency and/or a relevant exemption applies.

The MIAM will assess whether mediation is right for you and if you can agree arrangements out of court. You will need to find a mediator to book a MIAM. Only authorised mediators can carry out a MIAM. Check with the mediator before you book.

After the application is made

Once you have sent in your application and the matter is in court, you will be sent the ‘issued’ court documents which will give you a court reference number and directions for the start of the case (i.e. a list of what will happen next).

If it is an emergency case, the court might make an emergency order to make sure that everything remains the same (and for example the children cannot be removed from the country) whilst further action is taken and the court gets more information to see whether a longer term order should be put in place. 

An advisor from the Cafcass or Cafcass Cymru will contact you after you have made the application, and in advance of the first court hearing, to gather information. The information includes:

  • a social services and criminal record check on you and the other parent/party to the proceedings.
  • any concerns you and the other parent/party to the proceedings may have about the safety and welfare of the children.

The court will aim to set a first hearing date within 2 months of the application. However, in our experience, there are currently severe delays in the Family courts, so it may take longer than this.

At the first hearing, the judge will consider the case and will usually make ‘directions’ for the next steps in the case. These ‘directions’ are written up in a court order, and can include:

  • Statements (for example, you and the other party to the proceedings may be asked to write a witness statement setting out your position with any supporting evidence);
  • Evidence (for example, social services, the police, or any other relevant organisation may be asked to disclose relevant records);
  • Assessments (if required, for example, a parenting assessment or psychological assessment of one or other of the parents);
  • The date for the next hearing.

Dates are always given for when something is to be completed, and it is extremely important that you stick to the date for anything you have been asked to do – if you do not, you risk delaying the proceedings, and there may even be costs implications.

There can be several of hearings depending on the complexity of the matter and how much disagreement there is. The judge will decide at the final hearing, based on the available evidence before it, whether a Prohibited Steps Order should be granted. The paramount consideration, as with all proceedings concerning children, is the welfare of the child. The court must also have regard to the ‘no order principle’ (i.e. that no order should be made concerning a child unless it would be better than making no order at all).

Failure to comply with a Prohibited Steps Order could be viewed as contempt of court and result in actions being taken against the offending party.

What can I do if my child has already been abducted?

You should first report the incident to the police. The police have various powers, including the power to arrest anyone who is suspected of abducting a child, putting out warning notices, i.e. via Interpol if the location of the child is not known. 

If your child has been abducted from the UK, there are two International Conventions that can assist in tracing and returning your child. The Conventions are:

These are a network of countries working together to return the abducted child back to their place of residence. You should seek legal advice if you think these Conventions are relevant.

What if my child has been taken from me but remains in the UK?

This is not technically ‘child abduction’ but is still a very concerning matter. 

It may be that the other parent has taken your child (for example during contact) and not returned them. If this is the case, and all attempts to get them back by contacting the other person have failed, you may want to consider making an application to court for a Child Arrangement’s Order, which would name you as the parent with whom the child lives. 

Child Arrangement Orders are orders made by the court which deal with arrangements relating to: 

  • With whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact; and
  • When a child should live with, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person.

Please note that some people talk about getting custody of a child. Child custody is an old term, and a Child Arrangements Order is the current legal arrangement that deals with whom a child will live with and has contact with when these matters cannot be agreed upon outside of court.

If you would like any help or advice on child abductions or any issues relating to child proceedings, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Children Matters Team or get in touch on 020 8492 2290.

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