|

Solving parental child abduction problem no piece of cake

Carving out Hague caveats could halt the return of any kids snatched to Japan

by Colin P.A. Jones

The Way of Cake is mysterious and paradoxical. A master of the Way can make his neighbors feel they have filled themselves with tasty cake without ever cutting off a piece. The Way allows its disciple to step outside the boundaries of rational thought by partaking of cake while continuing to possess cake.

The Zen of having your cake and eating it too can sometimes seem to be a feature of the Japanese legal system. The rule of law applies, though it is sometimes hard to know what the law actually is. There is a Constitution that protects people from the government — except when the government finds this inconvenient — as well as a criminal justice system founded on the presumption of innocence, but which manages to find pretty much everyone guilty anyways (because prosecutors only ever prosecute people who are actually guilty, you see).

Yet it is in Japan’s most recent responses to growing pressure to join the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction that the Way of Cake may be demonstrated in its purest form.

It has always seemed highly likely (to me, at least) that Japan will eventually submit to foreign pressure and join a treaty regime that effectively represents the international community’s consensus on how cross-border child custody disputes should be decided: in the child’s country of habitual residence. At the same time, it has also always seemed unlikely that signing the treaty will result in children who have been abducted to Japan by Japanese parents actually being returned to their foreign homes. The Japanese civil justice system lacks the tools to enforce a return and, probably more to the point, it is unlikely to ever be in the interests of any Japanese judge, cop or other bureaucrat to be responsible for a crying child being taken away from a weeping Japanese mother in any particular case. The rule of law is one thing, but Japanese officialdom is not short on cake aficionados.

So it has not been too surprising to read recent news reports that the government is considering signing the convention while at the same time amending its domestic laws to ensure that children are not returned if there are concerns about domestic violence. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) also recently issued a formal opinion that included similar recommendations, as well as suggesting that children should not be returned if it would result in the abducting parent being subject to prosecution in their home country (the U.S., Canada and other countries have criminal penalties for parental child abduction). This would mean that in addition to the civil trial procedures (which should include appeals, according to the JFBA) used to return children in Hague Convention cases, it might be necessary to negotiate nonprosecution agreements with home country authorities in some instances.

Whatever legislation is used to implement the Hague Convention, it is hard to imagine that it will not also include a catch-all “other” caveat that will provide additional excuses for nonreturn in just about any situation. Even without the provision, the domestic violence exception alone will probably be enough to ensure that Japan fulfills its duties under the convention in terms of appearances and process, without actually accomplishing any of the goals the treaty is supposed to achieve in terms of substance.

To be fair, domestic violence is an issue that some commentators assert is not dealt with adequately under the Hague Convention in its current form, and I am certainly not suggesting that it is not a problem in cross-border — or any — marriages. Yet as a matter of law and judicial process, exceptions drafted around claims of domestic violence are likely to suffer from the same evidentiary and other practical constraints the convention is intended to address in the case of child custody decisions. In both situations, factual determinations are usually best made by courts in places where school officials, social workers and other potential witnesses are likely to reside, and where other relevant evidence is likely to be located. This is the child’s country of habitual residence under the Hague Convention, and logic suggests that claims of domestic violence or child abuse should also be adjudicated by courts where the conduct allegedly took place. This logic is even more compelling if the claims of violence are linked to a child custody dispute, and if the conduct in question also constitutes a criminal offense, as is often the case in many countries.

Whatever exceptions are provided for in Japanese law, as an evidentiary matter it is difficult to see how Japanese courts would decide whether to apply them except based on allegations by the Japanese victims, with the foreign “aggressor” being put in the position of having to prove a negative, over linguistic and geographical barriers. Unless Japanese courts are willing to start with a presumption that parents claiming abuse are lying (a cruel result for those actually fearing for their lives or those of their children), the safest thing for judges to do in any particular case will be to simply accept the claims at face value and grant the exception.

Japanese judges will be aided in this task by Japanese law, which defines spousal violence as including not just “bodily harm” but “words and deeds of one spouse that cause equivalent psychological or physical harm to the other” (this is from the Japanese government’s translation of Article 1 of the Act on the Prevention of Spousal Violence and the Protection of Victims). This already broad definition is further expanded by government publications that go so far as to include “yelling” and “ignoring” as types of domestic violence. Child abuse also is defined as including “words or conduct which cause a child significant psychological harm” (my translation of the relevant portion of Article 2 of the Child Abuse Prevention Act, for which a government translation is not yet available), though even this expansive definition is apparently not broad enough to cover abduction from abroad or the parental alienation that often follows.

To the extent that marital breakup is pretty much always emotionally traumatic for everyone directly involved, the unsubstantiated Japanese media trope about all cases of child abduction to Japan involving Japanese women fleeing from violence or abuse abroad can be said to be true: It will always be possible to find some sort of “psychological harm” that can be attributed to broadly defined violence or abuse if necessary.

However the law is written, it will likely serve as a message to Japanese living abroad that so long as they have the right story when they get off the plane with the children, they do not have to worry about a Hague Convention return order. Whether their story is legitimate or not (and I am certainly not suggesting that all claims of violence are or will be fabricated) will be beside the point — lawyers and well-intentioned bureaucrats will provide advice as to how stories should be scripted to ensure that an exception applies.

What will be interesting to see is how the law and Japanese judges deal with the situation where child custody issues and allegations of domestic violence have already been dealt with in a foreign court. If the law includes provisions calling on Japanese courts to give weight to foreign proceedings (as one hopes it would), it could have the effect of actually encouraging abduction before a foreign court has a chance to deal with any of the issues. Forum-shopping (trying to have your case resolved in the most advantageous court possible) through pre-emptive abductions is of course already a common problem in international abductions, but it is one of the things that joining the Hague Convention is supposed to discourage and remedy rather than induce.

Putting all this aside, an obvious response to concerns over domestic violence and the Hague Convention is that the treaty has been around for three decades and has been signed by dozens of countries despite domestic violence being a universal problem. There is, simply put, no “uniquely Japanese” set of issues here that involves prolonged navel-gazing over issues that are incomprehensible to foreigners.

Yet another point of rebuttal is this: If fleeing to Japan is going to be allowed if it is to escape domestic violence, then it should be OK to escape from Japan with your children for the same reason. But this type of mundane logical consistency is probably incompatible with the subtle rhetorical aesthetics of the Way of Cake.

While the Hague Convention garners most of the attention in the foreign press, there are signs that Japan could be taking steps to amend its creaky family laws to provide for joint custody and postseparation parent-child contact, neither of which are provided for under current law (preservation of access rights across borders is another goal of the Hague Convention, though the same is true of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Japan has signed but essentially ignores in this respect). The last draft of one version of proposed legislation I have seen includes a prohibition on the unilateral removal of a child from their home; if this provision survives the legislative process, it might be hard to square with a law that could offer a blanket invitation to Japanese mothers to bring their children home from abroad.

Yet how domestic law change fits with the Hague Convention may not be a problem, since nothing may actually happen in the case of the former. In a recent interview (Japan Times, Feb. 3), Justice Minister Satsuki Eda questioned the need to package the adoption of a joint custody regime with signing the Hague Convention, though in the same article it was also reported that “he thinks married couples should be allowed to have separate surnames, but changing the law now would be difficult.” That certain sectors of the Japanese polity are still grappling with the staggering complexities of women keeping their maiden names after marriage (and not even touching the seemingly unconstitutional prohibition on remarriage within six months of divorce that only applies to women) might be a good benchmark for how low expectations should be set regarding changes in domestic family law.

Then again, what a particular minister of justice says about anything may not be an indicator of very much in the first place. Since January 2001, 13 different people have filled the position, a one-year term ending in August or September being the most common pattern of tenure. Past ministers — past prime ministers, even — have voiced views on the Hague Convention and other aspects of family law, yet nothing much seems to happen. In 2010, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama expressed a willingness to sign the Hague Convention early in 2010, and during her term at the top of the Justice Ministry pyramid, Keiko Chiba’s accomplishment was supposedly to have been resolving the marital name issue, yet the status quo continues on both fronts.

Democracy is a slow business, full of messy compromise, of course, yet when it comes to issues that matter to families and children, one is often left wondering who — if anyone — is actually in charge. Cake, anyone?

Colin P. A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha University Law School. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp