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International Relocation: The Parent Trap 25 years on ...

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Lindsay Lohan’s debut film, The Parent Trap

It grossed over $92m worldwide and earned Lohan the highly coveted ‘Blockbuster Entertainment Award’ (for those under 30, Blockbusters was a chain of video (Google it) rental shops, if you can imagine such a thing). 

The plot is as follows:  Nick and Elizabeth meet and fall in love (on the QE2 apparently – I am taking this from an online plot summary having chosen not to re-watch the entire film as part of my research for this article).  They get married and have twin girls called Hallie and Annie. Soon after, they divorce – Nick takes Hallie to live with him on his vineyard in California and Annie (who has pulled the short straw here) lives with her mother in cold, rainy England.  Neither girl knows the other exists. Some 12 years later they meet at a US summer camp, realise they were separated shortly after birth (I recall they each have one half of a heart shaped locket which they put together? As I say, I’ve not re-watched it) and decide to swap places in an attempt to get their parents back together.   

Fast-forward to the end, Nick and Elizabeth get back together (on dry land this time I think) and all’s well that ends well. 

I bet you were thinking exactly as I was when the final credits were rolling:  The Parent Trap throws up some pretty meaty family law issues and yet, unforgivingly, Lohan just does not tackle any of them head on.  

But fear not dear reader.  You’ve come to the right place …

There are a number of legal law bits and bobs in the The Parent Trap (was there a London v California jurisdiction dispute when Nick and Elizabeth first divorced, for example?) but let’s focus on the arrangements for Hallie and Annie, and how they might have come about. And also, let’s assume for the purpose of this article that it is taking place in the present day in England because, well, I didn’t practice law in the mid 1980s …

There are many ways Nick and Elizabeth could have arrived at the arrangements for their children.  They could have simply agreed directly, for which they should be commended; their respective solicitors could have reached an agreement in negotiations; they could have mediated; they could have arbitrated. 

If Nick wanted Hallie to live with him in California and Elizabeth didn’t agree, he would have to seek the court’s permission for an international relocation. 

The court’s starting point for such an application is K v K (Children: Permanent Removal from Jurisdiction) [2011] EWCA Civ 793) which made clear that the welfare of the child is the court’s paramount consideration:  all other matters the court may consider is guidance only (including those matters set out in the leading authority Payne v Payne  [2001] EWCA Civ 166, now clearly framed as assisting judges to identify potentially relevant issues, nothing more or less) not to be applied rigidly: rather they are to be weighed in the balance as part of the court’s holistic assessment and evaluation of welfare.    (See also more recent cases of Re F (A Child) (International Relocation Cases) [2015] EWCA Civ 882 and Re C (A Child) (Relocation Appeal) [2019] 2 FLR 137).

The success or otherwise of relocation applications most often comes down to the plan the applicant puts in place for the move. Here are a few practical points for Nick to think about:

  1. All of the plans must be set out with Hallie’s interests front and center – Nick’s own dreams about his California vineyard come well down the list …
  2. Think very carefully about the motivations for the move.  What support network does Nick have in California and what support network might Hallie be missing out on were she to move?  The timing of the move is also crucial, and a problematic limb of Nick’s case is likely to be moving such a young child so far away from their mother (and twin sister).  
  3. What would Nick do if his application wasn’t granted? How might that impact him?  If you are going to run the ‘devastated parent’ argument here, consider Mostyn J’s case of GT v RJ (Children – Leave to Remove) [2019] 1 FLR 46 in which he said it should be treated ‘very circumspectly’ and expert evidence as to psychological harm is likely going to be needed. 
  4. Nick would need clear and well thought out proposals for Hallie to spend time with Elizabeth (and Annie) if she did move, as well as indirect contact such as telephone calls etc.  He must be able to demonstrate his commitment to supporting and endorsing their relationship, hopefully with a history of good behaviour in this regard as evidence.
  5. Education arrangements will be critical.  How will Hallie’s educational needs be met?  Short lists of nurseries and schools need to be drawn up and explored in detail.    Also, hobbies, interests and extra circular activities must be factored into the mix. 
  6. Accommodation needs to be arranged and planned and thought through.   Nick seems all good with this one: the vineyard looks dreamy. 

But, of course, the very biggest obstacle to Nick’s application would be separating Hallie from Annie.  It would be an uphill struggle to persuade a judge that the relocation of one child away from their twin sibling at such a young age would be in their interests, and pursuant to their welfare. 

Quite honestly, an argument based on them being reunited at summer camp 12 years later using the mechanics of connecting heart-shaped lockets is unlikely to persuade any tribunal …

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