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/ 29 Sep 2023

UK Child Abduction Laws: know your rights and legal actions to take

The recent news surrounding the high-profile divorce of Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas has brought the issue of child abduction during divorce or separation into the headlines.

In this blog trainee solicitor Clara Topiol and child abduction specialist James Dunn delve into the complex world of child abduction, shedding light on its various forms, including the legally intricate process of moving children between jurisdictions. Furthermore, they will explore potential courses of action available to parents and guardians who find themselves grappling with the nightmare of child abduction in the midst of a tumultuous separation or divorce.

Join us as we seek to provide insights and guidance for those who need it most.


Trainee Solicitor


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Family & Divorce

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What is child abduction?

Under the law of England and Wales, the Child Abduction Act 1984 states that “a person connected with a child under the age of sixteen commits an offence if he takes or sends the child out of the United Kingdom without the appropriate consent”. A such person may include one of the child(ren)’s parent, guardian, person named in a child arrangements order or someone who has custody of the child(ren). The appropriate consent here means the consent of all the child(ren)’s parents or person responsible for the child including obtaining leave of the court if required.

The Hague Convention, formally known as the Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, is a multilateral treaty which aims “to protect children from the harmful effects of wrongful removal and retention across international boundaries by providing a procedure to bring about their prompt return and ensuring the protection of rights of access” (HCCH, Child Abduction Section).

As such, the Hague Convention is the main legislative framework that is used when dealing with civil child abduction cases, which covers the wrongful removal and the wrongful retention of chlidren. The HCCH currently has 91 members (https://www.hcch.net/en/states/hcch-members), affording extensive protection to children in a significant number of countries.

When a child is removed to or retained in a country which is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, their return will still be possible although can be harder to achieve.

Types of child abduction

There are three categories of child abduction:

  • Wrongful removal: a child is taken or removed from the jurisdiction without the required consent. This may constitute a criminal offence in the UK. The maximum penalty is 7 years’ imprisonment. See RH [2016] EWCA Crim 1754, [2017] 1 Cr App R (S) 23 (165) for guidance on sentencing in child abduction cases.
  • Wrongful retention: following a consensual removal, a child is kept in a country where he is not habitually resident without the required consent.
  • Threat of abduction: a real risk that a child will be removed from the jurisdiction without the required consent.

Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner child abduction allegations

On September 6th 2023, Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner issued a joint statement on Instagram where they confirmed that they had “mutually decided” to “amicably end” their relationship. The pair have two children, Willa (age 3) and a 14-month-old baby whose name remains undisclosed. Following rumours that Joe Jonas had looked after his children more than Sophie Turner had during their marriage, it emerged that Sophie Turner had filed a lawsuit against Joe Jonas, claiming he had been wrongfully keeping the children from their country of habitual residence since September 20th. The petition was filed through the Hague Convention which seeks to protect children who have been “wrongfully removed or retained across international borders”. It is alleged that Joe Jonas is currently withholding the children’s passports so that they cannot return to the UK.

Moving children between jurisdictions after separation or divorce

Post-divorce or separation, if you are the primary carer of the child, you do not need formal permission to relocate within the UK.

However, if you are seeking to relocate outside the jurisdiction, it is essential to seek the other parent’s (or other named person on the child arrangements order) permission to relocate or otherwise, the court’s permission. This will minimise any tension between the parties and reduce any adverse effect on the subject child(ren).

In this jurisdiction, the court operates under the paramountcy principle, that is the fact that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration. The child’s best interests are determined by the court applying the ‘welfare checklist’ (s1(3) Children Act 1989) which covers factors such as:

  • The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child
  • The child’s needs including physical, emotional and educational
  • The likely effect on the child of any change in circumstances
  • The child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court should consider, where relevant
  • Any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
  • The capability of his parents or responsible persons to meet the child’s needs
  • The range of powers of the court in the present proceedings.

Possible courses of action if child abduction is a concern

If you are worried that your child might be subject to child abduction, you may take the following actions (on your own or with the help of a solicitor):

Contact the police and ask to issue a ‘port alert’: the police will contact the National Border Targeting Centre and ensure that all UK points of departure are aware of a potential abduction and can stop the relevant people at borders (airports, international train stations, harbours…) This alert will remain in place for 28 days, after which point you will need to apply to the court for an order should you wish for it to be extended. In practice, it can be difficult to get the police to issue a ‘port alert’.

Apply to the court for various types of orders, including:

    1. A Prohibited Steps Order: you may ask to forbid the removal of the subject child(ren) from this jurisdiction. You will need to complete a C100 form first (for child arrangements) and file this with your local court.
    2. A Child Arrangements Order: this will assess who the child should live with and can be done through a C100 form.
    3. A ‘port alert’
    4. A passport seizure order

Contact the Passport Office to prevent an application for a new passport via the abductor. For instance, the abductor might try to fraudulently report the child(ren)’s passport(s) as lost or stolen to apply for new ones. You may here contact the Passport Office to stop them from doing so.

How can our child abduction specialist help you?

Our experienced family lawyers assist parents and other family members in a range of family disputes, including child abduction. If someone has threatened to remove your children from the jurisdiction or has withheld their passports, you might be able to prevent your children from leaving the UK. If your children have already been removed or retained abroad, or if your children have been wrongfully brought to or retained in the UK, we can advise and represent you in respect of the most appropriate court application to make to secure their swift return.

Our lawyers have a wealth of experience in preventing children from leaving the jurisdiction and in returning children wrongfully brought or retained here. We can help you prepare the relevant forms for your case and help you prepare for any hearings.

Contact the team today on +44 (0) 207 228 0017 if you would like to discuss any of the above in more detail.

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