It’s rare that disputes between parents over arrangements for their children attract the level of interest generated by the case of Ciccone vs Ritchie and Ritchie (a minor) – better known as “Madonna’s custody battle”.
I first became aware of the case last Christmas Eve. The car radio reported that Madonna had attended court in New York and obtained an order for her 15-year-old son Rocco to be returned to the USA. Rocco himself was in England with his father Guy Ritchie and apparently wanted to remain here. My first reaction was, what can she be thinking? He is fifteen, he knows his own mind and any court proceedings will inevitably damage his relationship with his mother, possibly irreparably.
During the radio phone-in that followed lots of opinions were aired. Most people sympathised with Rocco and felt that his parents should “grow up”.
That sentiment has now been echoed by the two judges who have considered the case on the opposite side of the Atlantic. In New York Judge Deborah Kaplan has urged Madonna and her former husband to try to come to an agreement and to “take this tremendous pressure off their son”. In London Mr Justice Macdonald has used very similar words, pleading “for both parents to seek, and to find, an amicable resolution to the dispute between them”.
Underlying the court proceedings here and in the USA and the acres of press coverage, is a simple question which arises every day in the Family Court: which parent should the child live with? The issues which complicate the Ritchie case are Rocco’s age and the fact that his parents live in different countries. Rocco is now fifteen years and seven months old. He is, according to Mr Justice Macdonald, a “mature, articulate and reflective young man”, hence the surprise that his mother has asked the court to decide on his future. As one of the lawyers involved in the case has observed he can’t be physically forced to board a plane.
The international aspect is in many respects less of a problem. Both the UK and the USA are signatories to the Hague Convention (1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction). In very simple terms the Hague Convention stipulates that disputes over arrangements for a child should be determined in the jurisdiction in which the child is habitually resident. In the Ritchie case that is the USA, and that is why despite her clear misgivings Judge Kaplan made an order on 23 December that Rocco should return to New York.
Rocco has not returned to New York and the court proceedings have continued here and in the USA. Last week the proceedings in England came to an end when Mr Justice Macdonald decided that the New York court should decide on Rocco’s future. He also said that any future applications made to the English court should be reserved to him, which suggests he is not confident the case will be concluded any time soon.
Before long Rocco will be an adult, what will he feel looking back on the dispute between his parents which has led to pictures of him being plastered all over the internet? Unusually Mr Justice Macdonald has allowed Rocco’s own case to be publicised. Quite simply he wants “an end to ALL litigation between his parents in respect of him”.
I would guess that every child caught up in an acrimonious dispute between his parents would say the same. Unfortunately, parents will always disagree on what happens with their children after separation, but disagreements can be resolved in a fair and constructive way. Not every issue over child arrangements needs to end up as a “bitter custody battle”.
At Beswicks we take pride in offering parents advice and support in making appropriate child-focussed arrangements. Taking good legal advice early on can help parents to understand what the law expects from them and how they might protect the children from the worst of the fall-out from their separation.