– as told to HM member Louise Godbold.
Even before my estranged husband invoked the Hague Convention, this country, in very real sense, became my prison. Travel to see my family in Wales was deemed ‘too costly’, or ‘not convenient’ and so I only returned a few times within the seven years of being here. This was made more difficult as I became a stay-at-home parent to look after my autistic daughter. Since being brought back here via the Hague Convention, it has become even more difficult to see family, or indeed to travel anywhere.
Abusers isolate, and the constant heartache of being away from family and friends has been like mourning their deaths.
Before coming here I was a Head of Languages in a secondary school. It was well paid. Due to now being a carer, having young children who would need childcare, and being trapped by the means test for legal aid, I have lost a thriving career. Without legal aid, I would get into terrible debt as my estranged husband – whilst failing to turn up to court for access hearing – also threatens legal abuse against me, citing parental alienation. Even when he fails to appear, I still have to pay for representation. The one court session he did come to was to try to stop me travelling using the Hague as ‘proof’ that I will ‘abduct the children’.
The last time I wished to travel home, I had to pay a solicitor the equivalent of almost £900 and had to rely on financial help from my parents to pay for the cost of the journey as the little money I had was used up on the legal fees.
My circumstances mean that even though I would dearly love to return home, so that we could all be near my family and support networks, I cannot. The courts I’m sure, would not be so lenient if I attempted to return a second time and I cannot afford the cost of a High Court civil action to make my case for returning with the children. My husband fails to pay any maintenance towards the upkeep of our children and continues to weaponise them, extending access times using my daughter as a go-between.
I fear that freedom from his abuse may never come. If there are children involved, abusers know that they can still manipulate and control our lives through the legal system, finances, and the children themselves.
Most people are aware that domestic violence and abuse isolates the victim-survivor. Few understand, however, the ways by which the court system is complicit in perpetuating the isolation, especially after separation. For victims and their children who have family residing across international borders, the threat of the Hague Convention, or intimidation through local and national courts, stymies access to relatives who are usually their key or only means of support.
A small example: last year my ex-partner agreed but then withdrew consent for my two children and me to visit family abroad, right before our departure. I was forced to file an emergency motion in the courts (costing approximately £1600) or pay for new flights for the three of us. He did this simply because he knew it would cause pain and havoc, and because it fell just below the line of ‘legal abuse’, meaning he would face no repercussions.
This behaviour follows a pattern. Three years ago he accused me of child abduction when I applied for permission to temporarily reside abroad with my children (this was in relation to a short-term freelance project). The case went through the courts, with the decision being made in my favour. However, fighting the case cost me over £18,000 in legal fees that I had no means to pay; a clear case of forced debt.
One of the most debilitating aspect of this abuse is the extent to which it is condoned and facilitated (often wittingly) by the courts. In a twisted way, this makes perfect business sense: these lawsuits involve many players – lawyers, family assessors, guardians – who are as eager as anyone to cash-in.