International Child Abduction

If your child has been taken out of the UK without your permission, then there are steps that you can take to have them returned. Keep reading to find out what constitutes abduction, whether you can stop your child being abducted, and the steps you can take to get them back if they have been taken overseas.


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What is child abduction?

Child abduction occurs if you take a child under the age of 16 out of the UK without the permission of the people who have parental responsibility for that child, or without permission from the court.

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility so, in some cases a father couldn’t take a child abroad without the mother’s permission or the permission of the court.

Married fathers and fathers whose names are on the birth certificate (after December 2003 in England) have parental responsibility and so a mother could not take a child out of the UK without the father’s written permission or the consent of the court. However, a mother can take a child out of the UK if the father does not have parental responsibility.

In rarer cases, another adult may also have been granted parental responsibility (such as a parent’s new partner). They too would need to provide written permission for the child to leave the UK.

Child abduction can fall into three types:

  • Abduction – where a parent takes a child out of the UK without the other parent’s consent
  • Wrongful retention – where a child has been kept in a foreign country after a trip without the other parent’s consent
  • Threat of abduction– where there is a risk that a child will be taken out of the UK without permission (see the section below regarding ‘how to prevent your child being abducted’).

Child abduction is a serious matter and can have both civil and criminal consequences.

Is it abduction if the child remains within the UK?

No. It is not a criminal offence to take a child to another part of the UK. If you relocate with your child within the UK, or you take a holiday in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, it will not be classed as abduction, as long as you have parental responsibility.

It is a criminal offence to take a child to the Channel Islands or Isle of Man without the appropriate consent.

Remember that even though you can move within the UK, another parent can still apply to the court to stop your relocation or to have your child returned.

Can I take my child out of the country on holiday without consent?

If both parents have parental responsibility, and there are no court orders in place, then neither of you can take the child out of the UK without the consent of the other parent.

If you have a Child Arrangements Order for a child to live with you, you can take the child out of the UK for up to 28 days without consent. You must ensure that any other stipulations of such an order – for example alternative weekend contact – can be met.

If the other parent does not give consent, you will have to apply to the court for permission to leave the UK with your child.

In all cases, it is good practice to consult with all the holders of parental responsibility before you book a trip overseas. Providing a travel itinerary and details of your holiday may assuage any concerns the other parent has.

No. If you have parental responsibility and you gave your consent for the child to be taken overseas then abduction has not occurred.

Am I breaking the law if I take my child abroad without the other parent’s consent?

Yes, if they have parental responsibility. If you do take a child overseas without consent, then this could constitute a child abduction which is a matter that can be referred to the police. If you’re found guilty, you could face a prison sentence.

When you return to the UK the police may take your passports from you to prevent any risk of a further abduction.

As well as possible criminal consequences there is also a chance that your child could be taken from you and put into the care of the other parent or another suitable relative.


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If I abduct a child, will anyone be able to find me?

Yes. If a child has been abducted, then steps the court can take include:

  • asking mobile phone companies to locate the telephone of the abductor
  • freezing bank accounts
  • requiring hotels, travel agents or travel companies such as airlines to disclose travel records
  • asking internet companies to disclose the IP address which would detail where an abductor is living
  • ordering friends and relatives to attend court to disclose the location of the parent and child
  • ordering a search of property and seizing personal possessions that may identify where an abductor is living.

Courts treat the abduction of children extremely seriously and will use all powers at their disposal. As well as the UK police, Interpol can also become involved. Ultimately, this could lead to extradition proceedings and criminal charges.

How can I prevent my child being abducted?

If you believe that there is a risk that your child could be abducted, there are several steps you can take.

  • Safeguard your child’s passport, if you have it. If you don’t have it, you can apply for a court order for the passport to be surrendered. You could also obtain the other parent’s passport during contact visits.
  • Be vigilant about possible signs that an abduction may be about to take place.
  • Alert third parties of the risk. For example, the school may inform you if your child is collected from school by someone other than their parent.
  • Obtain a court order (such as a Prohibited Steps Order) to prevent the child being taken out of the UK.
  • Keep recent photos and descriptions of your child (and the possible abductor) in case these are needed to assist the authorities.

What if I believe my child has been abducted?

If you believe an abduction may be in progress – perhaps you have tried to pick up your child for contact and they are not there – then you can contact the police. They may issue an ‘all ports warning’ to alert points of exit from the UK.

It will help the authorities if you have:

  • Your child’s passport details, and recent photos
  • Details of the parent who has abducted the child, including relatives in the UK and overseas
  • Details of the abduction itself
  • Any court orders that apply.

If your child has been taken out of the UK but you don’t know exactly where, the police can contact the international police organisation Interpol. They may be able to work with overseas police forces to help find your child.

Does it matter what country my child has been taken to?

Child abduction occurs when a child is taken out of the UK without consent. So, it doesn’t matter which country they are taken to.

However, in terms of tracing your child and having them returned to the UK, the country that they are in can make a difference.

Countries that have signed up to the Hague Convention or the Brussels IIa Convention operate reciprocal arrangements to secure the fast return of abducted children to their resident country. If your child is in a country that has signed up to one of these Conventions, then local police and courts will work closely to ensure your child is found and returned.

However, there are many countries that are not signed up to either of these Conventions. In this case you may need to seek specialist legal advice in the country where your child has been taken. You may also be able to get help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

How do I get my child back if they have been abducted?

Your options will depend on which country your child has been taken to (see the section above).

If your child is in a country that has signed up to either the Hague or Brussels IIa Convention then you have the backing of an international agreement designed to ensure the fast return of abducted children.

You should make an application to the central authority in England and Wales; the International Child Abduction and Contact Unit (ICACU). Your application will then be dealt with by the corresponding authority in the country where your child has been taken.

Typically, the court will make an order for the child to be located and secured. If it decides the child has been wrongfully removed it can make an order to return the child.

If your child is in a country that is not signed up to one of the Conventions, it may be more difficult to secure their return. You will have to start court proceedings directly in that country, and so you may need specialist advice from a local solicitor.

Can I oppose an order requiring return of the child, even if I abducted them?

Yes. You may be able to supply a defence, for example that you had consent from the other parent to travel overseas. If you have been in your new location for a long time, then your child may be settled and you may be able to mount a defence on this basis.

Additionally, the child themselves may be old enough for their wishes to be taken into account.

More seriously, you may be able to oppose an order requiring the child’s return if you can provide convincing evidence that the child is in grave risk of physical or psychological harm if they are returned to the UK.

Bear in mind that defending child abduction proceedings rarely has an impact on the arrangements following a child’s return. Indeed, defending such an abduction may make the courts more anxious to secure the swift return of your child.

Your energies may be better used in securing the best outcome on your return to the UK.


Do you need help with your divorce?

Get in touch now with one of our panel of specialist local family solicitors.

If relevant, please include below the name of the other party (so the solicitor can check they have not already provided advice to your partner):

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