A six-year-old British girl is a step closer to being sent to live in Alabama after the US Supreme Court ruled against her Scottish mother in a bitter transatlantic custody battle that could set a landmark precedent for future cases.
Sergeant Chafin (left) with his lawyer, Michael Manely, outside the Supreme Court.
Eris Hales Chafin is at the centre of an ongoing legal struggle between Lynn Hales, her mother, and Jeffrey Chafin, her father, a sergeant in the US Army, who is fighting to have her returned from her current home in Scotland.
Following the breakdown of their marriage in 2010, an Alabama court sided with Miss Hales, 35, and ruled that Eris should live in Lanarkshire, where she had spent most of her early childhood.
When Sgt Chafin, 42, who accuses his former wife of drunkenness and domestic violence, attempted to appeal the decision to a federal court he was told that Eris was outside the reach of the American legal system and that US judges could no longer intervene.
The federal court’s decision has now been unanimously struck down by the nine justices of the US Supreme Court, in an unusual case that brought one family’s domestic dispute before America’s most senior judges.
“I can’t begin to explain how it felt when the decision came through,” Sgt Chafin told The Daily Telegraph. “No words can describe it.”
Chief Justice John Roberts, the head of the court, wrote that there remained “a live dispute between the parties over where their child will be raised” and ruled that US courts still had a role to play in settling the dispute.
The court’s decision is likely to strengthen the hand of American parents involved in future custody cases against any foreign partner who tries to take their child out of the US.
The decision does not guarantee that Eris will return to the US but gives Sgt Chafin the right to appeal his case in a federal court. If he wins at the federal level there is still no guarantee that Scottish authorities would agree to send the child back to the US.
Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the American justice system could not guarantee Eris’s return, saying “enforcement of the order may be uncertain if [Miss Hales] chooses to defy it”.
Stephen Cullen, an attorney for Miss Hales, said that the decision would only mean years of legal wrangling on both sides of the Atlantic and guarantee that Eris would never visit the US out of fear that she could be kept there by American authorities.
“The child is the loser here because if Sgt Chafin believes he can continue his case in the US then it’s way too risky to send her to visit her dad over the summer or at Christmas,” Mr Cullen said.
Sgt Chafin said: “We still have a long road ahead. One step at a time, that’s how you move mountains.”
Miss Hales was arrested on Christmas Eve 2010 after allegedly threatening her husband with a knife. She denied the allegations and no charges were brought but she was later deported from the US after authorities realized she had overstayed her visa.
Sgt Chafin that his daughter still had no idea that her parents’ argument had reached the Supreme Court. “She’s playing with her toys and being a six-year-old, which is what I want,” he said.
The case, recorded as Chafin v Chafin, is a rare example of a custody fight at the Supreme Court, which only hears around 80 of the 8,000 cases it receives each year and reserves its time for matters of national significance.
It also provided a moment of unanimity among the nine Supreme Court justices, who often split into conservative and liberal camps in the face of ideological cases.
SOURCE: The Telegraph