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A Supreme Court judgement affirming the jurisdiction of Indian courts to deal with disputes of children’s custody even if they are foreign citizens has raised demands for the government to accede to the Hague Convention dealing with such disputes and thus protect the rights of non-resident Indians.

In a judgement with far-reaching implications for Indians living abroad, the Supreme Court bench of Justice V.S. Sirpurkar and Justice T.S. Thakur ruled that simply because a foreign court had passed an order, it did not mean that Indian courts should put off deciding on the issue.

“Simply because a foreign court has taken a particular view on any aspect concerning the welfare of the minor, it is not enough for the courts in this country to shut out an independent consideration of the matter. Objectivity, and not abject surrender, is the mantra in such cases,” Justice Thakur wrote in the judgement.

This principle has been upheld by the apex court even earlier, but its reiteration in the recent judgement has raised demands for the government to take steps to accede to the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.

Bangalore-based Children’s Rights Initiative for Shared Parenting has called for the government to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

In cases of one parent taking away the child to another country, the parent left behind is deprived of the custody of the child. The only solution for this crime is to sign the Hague Convention as it involves different aspects of private international law.

Supreme Court advocate Kirti Singh explained that Indian law does not recognise parental child abduction as a crime.

When one parent removes the child from the family home, or throws the mother out of the house – it is an offence against the child. The child is taken away to an alien atmosphere or is deprived of the presence of the mother and the child suffers due to the withdrawal from the familiar environment, Singh added.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, 1980, was a means of settling inter-country custody suits. India is not a party to the Hague Convention but with the large number of Indians living and working abroad, there is need to have amendments to the law to protect the rights of children in marital disputes.

The judgement was given on the appeal of a Delhi-based dentist against a Delhi High Court order overturning an interim order given by a city court in a custodial matter for her minor son.

The petitioner, mother of the 11-year-old son, had been awarded interim custody of the child by the trial court in Delhi.

The couple had been living in the US after their marriage, where their son was born. The appellant returned to India with her son in 2008 and filed an application for custody of the child under the Guardians and Wards Act.

Her US-based husband obtained a decree from a US court granting him custody of the child. He had further filed a case against his estranged wife for running away to India with their son despite a court decree granting him custody.

The Delhi High Court had set aside the trial court order, holding that an Indian court had no jurisdiction to decide on the matter as the father had been given custody of the child by a US court. The mother had appealed to the Supreme Court against the high court order.

The Supreme Court bench said since the interest and welfare of the child was of primary concern, a competent court in India was fully entitled and, indeed, duty-bound to examine the matter independently, taking the foreign judgment, if any, only as an input for its final adjudication. The apex court allowed the trial court to hear the mother’s application for custody of the child.

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