Supreme Court breaks new ground, ruling in favor of U.S.-based Japanese father in international custody battle

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The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in favor of a U.S.-based Japanese father seeking to reunite with his teenage son, who was taken by his estranged wife to Japan in 2016, concluding that the wife’s dogged refusal to abide by an earlier court order mandating the minor’s repatriation amounts to her “illegally confining” him.

The ruling is believed to be the first by the Supreme Court on cases where return orders by courts have been refused. It is likely to send a strong message regarding domestic legislation that is often slammed as impotent on cross-border child abductions, despite Japan’s commitments under the Hague Convention, following mounting criticism that return orders issued by courts have been ignored.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Nagoya High Court.

This latest case involved a formerly U.S.-based Japanese couple whose marital relationship began to deteriorate in 2008. According to the ruling, the wife unilaterally took away one of her children, then aged 11, in January 2016 and brought him to Japan where the two have since lived together.

Upon a complaint by the husband, a Tokyo court issued in September the same year a “return order” for the child under the Hague Convention, but the wife didn’t comply. When a court-appointed officer intervened to recover the child the following year the wife “refused to unlock the door,” prompting the officer to enter her residence via a second-story window, the ruling said. The mother then put up a fierce fight to retain the child, who also articulated his wish to stay in Japan.

On Thursday the top court overturned a Nagoya High Court ruling that acknowledged the child’s desire to stay in Japan. The latest ruling judged the minor was “in a difficult position to make a multifaceted, objective judgment about whether to remain under control of his mother,” citing his “heavy reliance” on her and the “undue psychological influence” she was likely exerting upon him in his life in Japan. The apparent lack of his free will, the ruling said, meant the mother’s attempt to keep the child equated to detention.

“It’s very common for taking parents to alienate the child against their left-behind parents,” said John Gomez, chairman of nongovernmental organization Kizuna Child-Parent Reunion, noting the lower court ruling ignored “the undue psychological influence, the alienation, by the taking parent against the other parent.”

“Previously, when the children give their opinion, ‘Oh I don’t want to return,’ the enforcement process would stop … But this ruling recognizes we shouldn’t only listen to the words themselves, but we should consider the context that they’ve been influenced,” Gomez continued. “It’s a very critical development.”

Japan belatedly signed the Hague Convention in January 2014, signaling a step toward overcoming its longtime notoriety as a “safe haven” for parents who abduct their children from other countries. But questions have long remained over the effectiveness of its domestic legislation tied to the treaty.

Since the pact entered into force in April the same year, there have been six cases where return orders resulted in bailiffs being dispatched to achieve the handover of children, but none were ultimately successful, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Under the law, a fine is first imposed on parents who refuse to comply with a court order to repatriate their children.

Should the parents still refuse to relinquish their control of the children, court-appointed enforcement officers will be dispatched to confront them. The bailiffs, who are tasked with convincing the parents with custody to hand over the children, are authorized to enter and search their premises as well as physically restrain them. But the law also stipulates that the officers are prohibited from exerting any physical force on the children themselves, compromising their ability to ensure the children’s return.

“So if it’s a case where a child is willing to leave but a parent is refusing to let go of the child, an enforcement officer can resort to physical force to restrain the parent. But if it’s the child who is protesting by clinging on to the parent, for example, the officer cannot do the same,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

In its 2017 Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction, the U.S. government expressed concern over Japan’s “ability to quickly and consistently enforce return orders.”

While courts in Japan have ordered returns under the Convention, the Japanese authorities “were not regularly able to enforce these orders,” the report said, citing one particular case that remained pending for more than 12 months in which law enforcement failed to enforce the return order.

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