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Father in Constitutional court, fighting for daughter’s custody

Constitutional court to hear 10-year-old girl in heart-breaking custody case that could see her being returned to her estranged mother in the UK.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
12 July 2012, 12:00am
10-year-old Ella Bridge has told news media that she wants to remain in Malta, with her family
Judge Joseph Azzopardi has ruled that he will hear 10-year-old Ella Bridge in his chambers next Wednesday, before starting to hear evidence in a Constitutional case filed by her father Richard Bridge, who is insisting on defending his daughter's wish to remain in Malta with her family, and not be returned to her mother in the UK.

Richard Bridge is insisting that his daughter's mother, Nicki Lee, had allegedly abandoned her family and has since also refused any attempts to correspond with her daughter through Skype and the internet.

The issue concerning Ella's custody has been a tortuous journey since September 2010, when Richard Bridge and Nicki Lee finalised their divorce proceedings in the UK.

Bridge decided to start a new life in Malta with his partner Julia Dyson Bridge, now his wife, her son Elliott, 10, and Ella.

But a month after Bridge, his new partner and their children set foot in Malta, they were stunned to find that Nicki Lee had initiated proceedings against her former husband for taking the child out of the UK without her consent.

Nicki Lee filed a report with the Social Welfare Standards Department Director to start procedures against her husband under the international abduction of minors listed in the Hague Convention.

But Bridge claims he was unaware of The Hague Convention that as a joint custodian, he was obliged to first ask the mother's permission before leaving the UK with his daughter.

In his Constitutional application filed by lawyer Aaron Mifsud Bonnici, Richard Bridge is invoking a provision of The Hague Convention which states that if one parent - in this case Nicki Lee - was not exercising her right of custody, it would not be an offence for the other parent to take a child out of the country.

Over the past two years, Bridge and Lee have been through different phases of the courts in their fight over the girl's custody, with the Family Court deciding that Ella had to be returned to the UK.

His appeal however, was considered null and void due to a procedural matter, as it was apparently filed two days late, and the Attorney General refused any attempt for reconsideration.

Lawyer Aaron Mifsud Bonnici - who is appearing for the Bridge family - is claiming a breach in Ella's right to a fair hearing.

In a writ filed against the Attorney General and the Social Welfare Standards Department Director, Mifsud Bonnici claims that Ella's right to family and family life according to the European Convention for Human Rights have been violated.

In the application, Bridge also contests that Ella, who is "sufficiently mature" to understand the implications of the judicial process, was never given an adequate opportunity to express her views and wishes.

According to Mifsud Bonnici, the Family Court judge had one very short meeting with Ella in his chambers more than a year ago.

Judge Azzopardi has meanwhile denied the request for a minor's lawyer to be appointed to defend the interests of the child, insisting that he was going to hear the child himself.

The Attorney General has also refused to have the case postponed by one week as requested by lawyer Mifsud Bonnici, who explained that his wife is expected to give birth on the day the court is to be summoned.