Man wins tussle over daughter 'abducted' by Japanese ex-wife
The father, a 50-year-old former hedge fund manager who is studying law at SMU, relied on a Japanese legal provision typically used in commercial disputes - recognition of a foreign court order.
A Singapore-based British citizen has taken a novel legal route - persuading a Japanese court to recognise an order by Singapore's Family Justice Courts - to order his former wife to return their daughter to him.
The Japanese woman had "abducted" their 12-year-old child, taking her back to Japan in April last year. The couple had joint custody after they divorced in 2017.
The father, a 50-year-old former hedge fund manager who is studying law at Singapore Management University (SMU), relied on a Japanese legal provision typically used in commercial disputes - recognition of a foreign court order.
The parties are not named as the girl's identity is protected under the Children and Young Persons Act.
How Japan deals with "child abduction" - when a spouse vanishes abruptly with the couple's offspring upon the breakdown of a marriage - has long attracted criticism in Europe and the United States.
Japanese law does not allow joint custody, which means the custodial parent has the right to bar the other parent from seeing their children after a divorce.
In 2014, after years of foreign pressure, Japan became a party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. The treaty obliges signatories to return "abducted" children to the countries where they previously resided.
However, observers have expressed cynicism over Japan's domestic law that was enacted to implement its obligations under the Hague Convention.
In 2018, a US State Department report accused Japan of not having effective means to enforce court orders for abducting parents to return their children.
According to figures from Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as at June this year, it agreed to provide assistance in 139 out of 158 applications made since 2014 seeking the return of a child from Japan to another country.
Of the 102 cases that have concluded, 43 ended with an outcome where the child remains in Japan.
The man told The Straits Times that he took the alternative approach to sidestep what he described as "flaws" in Japan's legislation.
For instance, an abducting parent can rely on domestic violence as a defence in arguing against the return of the child.
However, he said, domestic violence is loosely defined in Japan, and includes ignoring one's spouse. In addition, unproved allegations, such as those made in a police report, suffice as proof.
His daughter was two years old when the family moved from Japan to Singapore in 2010.
After the couple divorced in 2017, he was the main caregiver of the girl, who lived with him for five days of the week. On April 15 last year, his ex-wife took the girl to Japan.
He filed a summons, asking the Singapore court to grant him sole custody, care and control.
A hearing for the summons, held via Zoom, was scheduled on April 28 and a notification was sent to the woman.
She did not attend the hearing and instead sent an e-mail to the court. She wrote that "we had no choice but to return to our home country" and that the girl "is old enough and mature enough to decide" for herself about the relocation.
District Judge Jen Koh found that the mother had wrongfully removed the child from Singapore and ordered her to return the daughter by May 3.
She failed to comply and, on May 4, the court granted the father sole custody, care and control. However, the judge said it was open for the mother to ask for a review of these issues upon her return.
The judge said: "The child has been habitually resident here... and to tear her away from her home, her main caregiver, her friends and her school all demonstrate that (the mother) has not placed the child's welfare to be paramount."
The man lodged the case with the Japanese court on June 16 last year, asking it to recognise the Singapore court order.
The woman did not appeal against the Singapore court decision. Instead, she sent e-mails to friends, business contacts and their daughter's school, alleging that her former husband had abused her, in court documents seen by The Straits Times.
Judge Koh then granted an application by the man for a personal protection order against his ex-wife. The judge ruled that her "campaign of character assassination" by raising allegations that had been dismissed by the court was tantamount to harassment.
In March this year, the Japanese court in Yokohama ruled in favour of the man, who was represented by a lawyer. After winning the case, the man went to Japan and approached his daughter with the help of some friends.
He arranged for her to be interviewed over video by the Japanese police, to state that she was going with her father willingly.
The two left Japan in June for another country and arrived in Singapore last month.
The man said the Singapore courts moving quickly to Zoom hearings amid the pandemic was a crucial factor in his legal triumph in Japan. "The quick embracing of technology really made it possible to get my daughter back."
Under Japanese law, a foreign court order has to meet four requirements before it can be recognised. One is that the defendant must have had an opportunity to be heard.
"Even though she didn't attend the hearing, she had the opportunity. This allowed us to meet the requirements," he said.
He also thanked his fellow SMU students for supporting him and helping him with legal writing.
When ST contacted the woman via e-mail, she reiterated what she told the Singapore court, saying "we had no choice but to leave" as she had no money in Singapore.
When asked why she did not attend the Zoom hearing, she said: "I think I saw the e-mail the day before the hearing and there was no way I could suddenly attend a hearing for a summons when I had no idea what it was about."
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.