By Sarah Elks, The Australia

AUSTRALIA’S international reputation is being damaged by a bitter and prolonged tug-of-love over four Italian-born sisters, a Family Court judge has been warned.

Lawyers for the Queensland Department of Communities yesterday urged Justice Colin Forrest to swiftly return the girls — aged between nine and 15 — to their father in Italy and end the 14-month stand-off.

“There comes a time when the court has to stand back and say enough’s enough,” barrister Murray Green, for the department, told Justice Forrest.

But the judge ruled the girls should stay in Queensland until their Australian-born mother’s appeal against their return to Italy was heard next month.

Justice Forrest noted his initial judgment last year had been that the children had been wrongly taken from Italy by their mother, “but that was two years ago”.

He ordered the girls be reinterviewed by an independent, court-appointed family consultant, who would determine whether they had an objection to returning to Italy and why.

The consultant would determine whether the sisters’ objections were “age-appropriate and based on the children’s own views”, Justice Forrest said.

The court has previously heard that the girls’ Australian mother and Italian father — who cannot be named for legal reasons — fell in love in Italy, married and had four children.

Their relationship fell apart and Italian courts awarded the couple joint custody. However, in 2010 the mother brought the girls to Australia, allegedly without her ex-husband’s consent.

Australia is a signatory to the Hague Convention on international child abduction, which requires children be returned to countries from which they have been wrongfully removed.

Last year, Justice Forrest ordered the girls be returned to Italy, despite them telling the court’s family consultant they wanted to stay in Australia.

He ruled their objections did not show the legally required “strength of feeling” and said not all the girls were mature enough for their views to be considered.

But Justice Forrest acknowledged yesterday that 14 months had passed since the first interview. He said the girls had aged and their objections had “intensified”, as the drawn-out legal process continued.

The new interview, scheduled for late this month, would assess the girls’ cognitive and emotional development as well as their maturity levels.

Last week, the High Court of Australia threw out an application by the sisters, who had argued they had been denied “natural justice” because their opinions were not considered.

Barrister Paul Donnelly, for the girls’ father, told the court yesterday his client had been left “almost financially destitute” by the long-running court battle.

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