Parental alienation misunderstood?
When it comes to disputes over arrangements for children it is simultaneously one of the most commonly raised complaints, and one of the most misunderstood. Hardly a day seems to pass when I do not come across the term ‘parental alienation’, yet I suspect that many who use it do not fully understand what it is, whether it is actually a factor in their case, and if so how the court will deal with it.
Only yesterday I wrote here about Sir James Munby’s recent speech in which he spoke of the numerous complaints lodged against the family justice system. One of those complaints, he said, made primarily by litigants, is that judges are not sufficiently alert to the behaviour of mothers who are alienating their children from their fathers.
An allegation of parental alienation is both highly emotive and potentially very powerful. But how often is it raised without good cause, either through genuine mistake or as a calculated attempt to swing the proceedings in that party’s favour?
All of which leads me to welcome a House of Commons briefing paper on the subject of parental alienation, that was published on the 10th of February. Anything that adds to the general understanding of this complex subject must surely be a good thing. The paper is quite short and generally written in an easy to understand language, making it particularly useful for litigants who are having to struggle through contested children proceedings without the benefit of a lawyer.
Parental alienation explained
The main part of the paper comprises three sections: ‘Parental alienation explained’, ‘Why parental alienation matters for contact and residence’ (note that the old term ‘residence’ is used, rather than the slightly confusing new terminology ‘live with’), and ‘Safeguards when parental alienation is identified’. Throughout, there are very useful footnotes, providing links to the material referred to in the text.
The first section attempts to define parental alienation, although it explains that there is no single recognised definition. Importantly, it tries to explain what alienation looks like in practice, setting out a number of behaviours that can be indicators of the existence of alienation.
The section also gives an interesting insight into the possible scale of the problem of parental alienation, referring us to a 2012 research study which found that, of 215 enforcement applications relating to child contact orders, ”alienating or implacably hostile mothers represented a small minority—about 5% of cases”. I suspect that many may feel that this figure is somewhat on the low side.
The first section makes several interesting and important points, including that both mothers and fathers can demonstrate alienating behaviours, and that even when parental alienation has occurred, it is still possible that a child will continue to hold their own views.
Moving on, the second section explains briefly how alienation interfaces with the law, i.e. that the court, when considering what, if any, orders to make in relation to a child, must take into account the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned, considered in the light of the child’s age and understanding.
The third section attempts to explain, amongst other things, how the family justice system will respond, once parental alienation has been identified. In particular, it explains that the ‘diagnosis’ will be carried out by a Cafcass officer, following guidelines, who will report to the court, usually with a recommendation as to what order or orders the court should make. The section concludes with an example of a court ruling that identified parental alienation
Obviously, a short briefing paper such as this can only give an introduction to a subject such as parental alienation. However, the paper concludes with an extremely useful section setting out other sources of information and advice, all with links.
You can find the briefing paper here.