Rapid rise in global family disputes

Girl sat on bed The biggest number of cases in 2012 involved European countries, the report said

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The number of international family legal disputes, in which UK courts intervene, has quadrupled in four years, a new report has shown.

A total of 253 cases were handled in 2012 by the Office of the Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales, up from 65 in 2008.

Its head, Lord Justice Thorpe, said it was dealing with child abduction, adoption and forced marriage.

He said it was due to an increase in "international family cases".

The Office offers advice to judges and lawyers acting in international disputes, as well as negotiating with judges in other countries.

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Lord Justice Thorpe, who co-wrote the report with a lawyer, said the rise in requests for help was down to the increasing number of international family cases coming before the courts and the increasing awareness of the Office.

Case study - Elsa Salama

Elsa Salama with her mother, Naomi Button

Elsa - now 6 - was taken by her father, Tamer, from a holiday apartment in in Egypt in 2011.

Her mother Naomi Button says: "Tamer was against the divorce despite me asking for it for three years. Tamer wished me to give up all my parental rights and wanted he and Elsa to remain in Egypt.

"He said I could stay or go. I was distraught and felt powerless but I refused to sign the contract.

"From this point onwards, Tamer did not let Elsa and I out of his sight.

"At night, he locked us in the apartment and sat behind the bedroom door. He also had his brother guarding us.

"It was on 27 December that Tamer took Elsa from the apartment whilst I was on the balcony contacting family to alert them to what was happening.

"I was arranging for my brother to fly out to Egypt. I immediately tried to reach Tamer only to receive reassurance from him that he had taken Elsa to the local shops and that they would return to the apartment soon.

"I alerted the British Embassy although at this stage I expected them to return. I became increasingly anxious trying to contact by text and phone calls.

"Eventually Tamer had sent a text message to say that he had taken Elsa to a safe, undisclosed location and I would not see Elsa until I went to Cairo and signed an agreement giving up my parental responsibilities."

He said co-operation between countries on family law was needed due to "globalisation, increasing movement of persons across borders, and the ever rising number of family units which are truly international".

The case of one mother who took her children to France to prevent them from being taken into care was cited in the report.

The family was found living on a waterlogged caravan site, the children were not attending school, were not registered with a doctor and the mother had no income.

Following the Office's intervention, French social services stepped in and the children were safely returned, the report said.

In another case, the Office obtained the assurances of the Cypriot attorney general that a woman agreeing to return from Britain to Cyprus with her child would not be prosecuted by the Cypriot authorities.

'Male victims'

In 2012, 127 cases involved European countries; 39 the Middle East and Asia; 35 the Caribbean, north, central and south America; 26 Africa and 15 Australia and New Zealand - according to the report.

A total of 11 requests were not counted as they either did not relate to an international matter or just sought generic advice.

The country with the highest number of cases was Poland, with 14, followed by Pakistan (13) and Spain (12).

Following the report's publication one man who had a dispute with his former wife over the custody of their child told the BBC international courts often ruled against men.

Gerald, from Essex, whose wife had gone abroad with his daughter, said: "The problem is the stereotype that the male is the aggressive one - in reality it's not so," he said.

"Courts are biased against the male - I have access to my daughter but it's strained."

He went on: "Every time my daughter sees me she says she wants to see me and be with me. I have to go to Poland once a month if I want to see her. It costs me £300 a month. On top of that I have to pay £300 per month in alimony."

Commenting on the impact of such cases, Lord Justice Thorpe said: "We acknowledge, as would all individuals concerned or involved with family justice, the additional emotional distress that is caused to any family by the inclusion of an international dimension.

"It is incumbent upon anyone who works in such a sensitive area to try and find ways of mitigating such stress, to the extent that it is possible to do so."

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