Mark Lancaster-fromthehouse: Loophole that could mean Justice for All

Mark Lancaster
Mark Lancaster

READERS will be aware that the Citizen has been running an ongoing campaign to reunite Ken Spooner with his two children Devlan and Caelan.

Ken believed they were being taken on a short holiday to Zambia by their mother in 2008, but they have never been returned.

Having been contacted by Ken, who lives in Milton Keynes, around the time the children were first taken, I have worked closely with him. By helping to facilitate meetings with Ministers, communicating with the British High Commission in Zambia and most importantly for other parents, looking into what I can do to make sure that this isn’t allowed to happen again, Ken has had my full support.

In the past year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reported a 10 per cent increase in the number of international child abductions carried out by a parent within the UK. With 97 children taken to “non-Hague” countries last year, there has been a worrying increase in the number of children being taken, with little judicial support to ensure the child is returned.

The Hague Convention was created in 1980 with the aim of ensuring the return of an abducted child to the country where they normally live, so that issues of custody and access can be decided by the courts of the home country. Unfortunately, Zambia is one of a handful of countries that has never signed the Convention and as a result Ken has faced a legal battle going from court to court both at home and abroad.

Having been granted sole custody of the children in the British High Court soon after his ex-partner had taken the children, Ken approached the Zambian courts trying to use the British decision to influence them to give him custody in Zambia.

The battle in the courts has been a lengthy and costly one but Ken was finally awarded custody of the children by the High Court in Zambia as well as in the UK in August this year. Although the decision is now being appealed by the children’s mother, there is finally hope that the custody order may be followed.

But it is following the Zambian High Court judgement that the loophole in our law became clear to me.

When a child is abducted by a parent it is treated either as a criminal or a civil offence. As I have mentioned before, Ken initially believed his ex-partner to be taking the boys on a short holiday and he gave the mother consent to take them out of the country and visit their grandparents.

As a result of Ken giving consent for the holiday, the abduction could not be treated as a criminal action under UK law and instead it was treated as a civil dispute. In line with the law Ken had to wait until they had been taken for 30 days in order to press formal charges.

Combined with Zambia not being party to the Hague convention, the civil class of the crime greatly inhibited the likelihood that the children would be returned quickly. Had it been a criminal offence, I suspect the Zambian authorities would have been more likely to extradite the boys and his mother back to the UK to be dealt with in the courts here.

And so the lengthy court battle continues and Ken is still struggling to have his two boys returned to the country of their birth. Most concerning is that Ken is not alone in having experienced this and the odds are stacked against him.

I find it staggering that children can be abducted from a parent and the actions of the other parent are not classed as criminal. I am going to be working tirelessly to press ministers to reconsider the inconsistency in the law and to look again at whether or not all forms of child abduction should be considered to be criminal offences.

This, I hope, will make it easier for parents like Ken, whose children are taken to non-Hague countries, to ensure the speedy return of their children.

The inconsistency of the law as it stands is there to be abused and in my opinion it is about time this loophole is closed.