PARENTAL ALIENATION – trends, strategy and pitfalls

This is the text of a talk given to Bath Resolution on November 3rd 2020.

It is time to take stock about where we are now with ‘parental alienation’. Sadly, in so many areas of life and law, our ‘public debate’ appears to descend into pushing and shoving between two distinctly opposed groups. I have no doubt this is happening now in the context of parental alienation and – as ever – the people this will hurt most are the children involved. 

I could talk for hours about the development of ‘parental alienation’ as a concept. It has generated a huge amount of ‘research’ and discussion. I do not want to get bogged down in arguing about labels – what matters here is the behaviour of some parents, its impact on the children and what we can do to get these very serious cases dealt with as quickly and fairly as possible. Time really is of the essence in such a situation; the more time that passes, the less likely you are to restore any relationship between child and alienated parent. 

What follows does no more than scratch the surface but hopefully gives you some suggestions for further reading and research of your own. 

I will look at three headings:

The identification of Parental Alienation

The likely response of the courts

Pitfalls to avoid. 

The identification of parental alienation

There is currently a battle raging between two camps; those who state that ‘parental alienation’ is no more than another tool of an abusive parent (the father) who makes such allegation to cover up his own violence, and those who assert it is a prevalent and highly damaging form of emotional abuse. 

For example in 2020 Good Egg Safety CIC produced a report about parental alienation and its impact, concluding that parental alienation was: 

A devastating form of ‘family violence’ with psychological abuse and coercive control at its heart 

Of the 1,513 who responded to the survey, parental alienation was a live issue for 79% of respondents who were split 56% male, 44% female. 80% experienced an adverse impact on their mental health, 55% an adverse financial impact. 58% saw court orders breached.

However, the alternative view of parental alienation as a ‘grand charade’ was set out by Rachel Watson in July 2020:

A pattern emerged in the family courts (England & Wales) of parental alienation (PA) raised as a response to domestic abuse claims, as proved in Dr Adrienne Barnett’s  research published in January 2020. It resulted in devastating outcomes for mothers and children. The need for a child to maintain contact became a priority as we were subtly influenced to believe in a new stereotype; a hostile, vindictive mother; a woman scorned, one who used her child as a pawn. Domestic abuse was reframed by controlling, abusive fathers who denied their behaviour, lied about it and projected it onto bewildered, abused mothers. Fathers’ rights groups powerfully marketed the new stereotype.  They cried from the rooftops;

“Mothers lie about abuse and cut off contact from deserving fathers; we are the true victims; there is a bias against us!”

Judges routinely minimised domestic abuse in the courtroom; mothers were disbelieved, dismissed and punished through the contact arrangements. Welfare reports were often carried out by unsuitable and underqualified assessors.

This kind of assertion cannot be dismissed simply because the language used is overblown and the evidence in support is questionable – these issues have captured the attention of law and policy makers. 

The recent report from the Ministry of Justice in June 2020 purports to assess risk of harm to parents and children in private law cases. Concerningly, it talks of a ‘pro contact culture’ where “the courts placed undue priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent, which resulted in systemic minimisation of allegations of domestic abuse.

I have been critical of this report, not least because it makes no sense to recast the domestic and international obligations on the courts to protect the child’s Article 8 rights to a relationship with both parents as a ‘culture’. Further there is heavy reliance on uncorroborated anecdotal accounts to support the Watson/Barnett view.

However, I have to concede that if over a thousand people take the trouble to write in with serious complaints, we can’t ignore that many are very unhappy about the way the family justice system operates and we should be curious about the reasons why. 

But I do not think the root of the problems here are with a ‘pro contact’ culture and use of this phase does, in my view, (either consciously or not), minimise the harm that parental alienation does. 

If you wish to read further, my comments and a link to the report are here 

Case law

You can find a useful review of the case law up to 2018 in the  Review of the law and practice around ‘parental alienation’ in May 2018 from Cardiff University for Cafcass Cymru. There is a very useful summary of the relevant case law in Appendix A. The report concludes at para 4.7:

With no clear accepted definition or agreement on prevalence, it is not surprising that there is variability in the extent of knowledge and acceptance of parental alienation across the legal and mental health professions. The research has however, provided some general agreement in the behaviours and strategies employed in parental alienation. This has led to the emergence of several measures and tests for parental alienation, although more research is needed before reliability and validity can be assured. Many of the emerging interventions focus upon psycho-educational approaches working with children and estranged parents, but more robust evaluation is needed to determine their effectiveness.

Two more recent authorities are;

  • Transfer of residence of child from mother to father – RH (Parental Alienation)  [2019] EWHC 2723 (Fam) (03 October 2019)
  • Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult)  [2020] EWCA Civ 568 – child ordered to live with father if mother continued to refused to give up her adherence to a ‘harmful and sinister’ cult.

The CAFCASS assessment framework for private law cases has a useful section headed ‘Resources for assessing child refusal/assistance’ which in turn has a link to a section headed, ‘ Typical behaviours exhibited where alienation may be a factor ’. These include:

  • The child’s opinion of a parent is unjustifiably one sided, all good or all bad, idealises one parent and devalues the other.
  • Vilification of rejected parent can amount to a campaign against them.
  • Trivial, false, weak and/or irrational reasons to justify dislike or hatred.
  • Reactions and perceptions are unjustified or disproportionate to parent’s behaviours.
  • Talks openly and without prompting about the rejected parent’s perceived shortcomings.
  • Revises history to eliminate or diminish the positive memories of the previously beneficial experiences with the rejected parent. May report events that they could not possibly remember.
  • Extends dislike/hatred to extended family or rejected parent (rejection by association).
  • No guilt or ambivalence regarding their attitudes towards the rejected parent.
  • Speech about rejected parent appears scripted, it has an artificial quality, no conviction, uses adult language, has a rehearsed quality.
  • Claims to be fearful but is aggressive, confrontational, even belligerent.

The likely response of the Courts

So you think you have a case of parental alienation on your hands? Now what? 

We must be aware of the elements which are nothing to do with the legal or factual aspects of the case before us, but which all operate to frustrate an efficient or timely resolution. All my cases involving parental alienation have lasted years. The vast majority ended only when the child aged out of the system or the other parent gave up. However, there does seem to be a greater willingness from the courts to transfer residence now, than I saw 10 years ago – I would be interested to know if anyone else shares this view. 

The courts are overwhelmed. 

The key point is that the courts are overwhelmed and never more so than now. The removal of legal aid for private law applications caused not a rush to mediation as was hoped but instead to a significant increase in litigants in person with consequent obvious additional burdens for Judges. 

There is a huge backlog of cases throughout the system and urgent public law cases will get priority. So dire is the current situation that recently HHJ Wildblood QC felt it necessary to publish a judgment warning parents off coming to court to argue about trivial matters ,such as the precise location of pick up and drop off.  See: B (A Child) (Unnecessary Private Law Applications), Re [2020] EWFC B44 (25 September 2020).

The problem is that mostly these arguments are not about handovers at all – they are simply a manifestation of many years of emotional pain, frustration or desire to control – all of which can feed into the developing situation that is very serious and risks causing significant harm to the children.  . 

But it’s always good to remember that the courts are pre-disposed to want you to go away. There may be initial resistance to identifying a case as a serious example of risked emotional harm. You must hit the ground running with a clear case, effectively presented.

Maintain your objectivity 

It is rare – I would say impossible – for any case to involve someone who is 100% a victim of another’s behaviour. Clients must be encouraged to look with realism about their own contributions to any breakdown in the adult relationships and do what they can to mitigate this. A key responsibility for us as lawyers is not to engage personally and I know this is often difficult to guard against when we feel instinctive sympathy for a client denied any relationship with his or her children for no good reason that we can see. 

However I am often taken aback by the tone of correspondence I see between solicitors. It is clear that anything that operates to increase the emotional tension between the parties is likely to prolong and exacerbate existing difficulties. 

Push for finding of fact as soon as possible and consider LA involvement 

It seems likely that most cases will require a finding of fact. These are not cases where the alienating parent is likely to ‘let go’ of any allegations and the court will need a firm basis on which to proceed if considering a change of residence. 

And do not wait until the outcome of the fact finding to consider the next steps. Some cases will require input from the LA as to whether they will consider care proceedings and provision of foster placement.  Be ready to make the request for a section 37 report. 

Other ‘structural’ problems

You must be aware of the other structural elements that operate against effective resolution. It is clear that an adversarial court environment is not a good place for angry or frightened people to be.  Even the physical environment of many courts operates to reduce the chances of effective negotiation and compromise, with no where private to sit and talk. 

Of course, remote hearings don’t make any of that any easier.  But on a positive note the findings of the Nuffield Observatory indicate that the perception at least of such hearings is that they are fair most or all of the time. 

https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/remote-hearings-september-2020

Lucy Reed wrote recently about the structural problems that make the system ineffective – even positively harmful.

She notes the increasing burden on any lawyer representing the child, who may be the only lawyer in court, particularly if they are asked to take on cross examination of both parents!:

It is a tricky, uncomfortable and exhausting task. Particularly where, as I recently was, counsel for the child is tasked with asking questions sequentially on behalf of both parties of the other, as well as (eventually) her own. The burden on an advocate of asking questions from three metaphorical vantage points in turn is significant.

Common pitfalls if the court decides to transfer residence

What’s the exit plan?

So you have navigated the fact finding process and a court has determined that the child’s residence needs to change.  Depending on the length of time a child has been alienated and the degree of opposition expressed, you may need expert help on the ground. This will require careful thought as there are sadly many examples of when attempts to change residence went wrong – one local example is Re A (Children) (Parental alienation)[2019] EWFC

There is a serious problem is the shortage of available expert practitioners in this field and risk that those who do operate are partisan. Check CVs carefully! Do not instruct anyone who purports to offer psychological help but who is NOT subject to scrutiny by any external regulator.

In October 2019 I wrote an open letter to the President which was signed by lawyers, parents and experts. 

We are writing to request an amendment to Practice Direction 25 B so that no person may be permitted to submit an expert report involving the assessment of any child unless that person meets minimum standards of professional practice, which we assert are as follow. The expert must:

  • submit to an external regulatory or supervisory body which requires adherence to a Code of  Conduct
  • meet professional obligations as data controllers
  • provide clear and accessible formal complaints procedure

We are troubled by the number of experts involved in family proceedings who do not appear to meet some or all of these basic requirements.

I received a reply that this was being considered but COVID and the President’s ill health intervened and I haven’t heard back – this reminds me to chase.  

But while waiting to see if the rules are amended I strongly urge you to bear this in mind when deciding who to instruct. I advise avoiding any organisation or individual who cannot meet such basic requirements of good practice. 

Costs

I have only had two cases in my career where costs were ordered against a parent (both mothers) who were found to have deliberately obstructed the court process. I have no evidence to support my feeling that this may become an increasing trend, but be aware of the potential for a costs argument and be ready to make it. And don’t – as I did! – neglect to consider the rate of interest to be attached to a cost order and the time from when it starts running. 

Basic principles

Costs orders in children’s cases are exceptional but possible. 

The Family Procedure Rules adopt most of the costs rules of the Civil Procedure Rules with one important distinction. FPR r 28.2(1) disapplies r 44.2(2) of the CPR; being the ‘general rule’ that the unsuccessful party will pay the costs of the successful party. There is thus no general assumption in family proceedings that ‘costs follow the event’. The general rule is instead that parties have a  ‘clean sheet’ i.e. there is no presumption as to whether or not there will be a costs order. 

The Judge retains a general discretion to make a costs order in family proceedings– as set out in primary legislation (see s51(1) SCA 1981) and repeated at r28.1 FPR. 

The conduct of the parties is a relevant factor at CPR r44.2(4)(a), which is not disapplied by FPR r 28.3. ‘Conduct’ is further defined at CPR r44.2(5):

  1. conduct before, as well as during, the proceedings and in particular the extent to which the parties followed the Practice Direction – Pre-Action Conduct or any relevant pre-action protocol;
  2. whether it was reasonable for a party to raise, pursue or contest a particular allegation or issue;
  3. the manner in which a party has pursued or defended its case or a particular allegation or issue; 
  4. whether a claimant who has succeeded in the claim, in whole or in part, exaggerated its claim. 

See principles derived from Re R(A minor) [1996] EWCA Civ 1120 and  In the matter of S (A Child) [2015] UKSC 20 :

  1. The child’s welfare is paramount, the court adopts a quasi-inquisitorial approach and there are many possible outcomes;
  2. The court generally needs to hear from both parents: ‘no one should be deterred by risk of having to pay other sides costs from playing their part in helping the court achieve the right solution’;
  3. The court can assume that the parties are not generally motivated by malice;
  4. The parties need to work together and one should not be stigmatised as ‘the loser’;
  5. Costs orders can reduce funds available to the family.

How does the court identify ‘unreasonable conduct’ which would make it appropriate to order costs?

The Court of Appeal in R (a Minor) considered it in this way:

Of course, the parties should not be deterred by the prospects of having to pay costs, from putting before the court that which they genuinely think to be in the best interests of the child, but there have to be limits. Children should not be put through the strain of being subject to claims that have very little real prospect of success… in other words there was conduct in relation to the litigation which goes way beyond the usual sort of attitude which a concerned parent shows in relation to the future of his child’.

The decision in Re R has been followed and endorsed in a number of cases; for example, see Re F (Family Proceedings: Costs) [2008] EWCA Civ 938 and G (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1017.

The court does not need to make a finding that the party acted maliciously or in deliberate bad faith; a party may genuinely believe their actions are reasonable but in reality they are not. 

In G (Children) cited above, a costs order was upheld against the father because it had not been necessary for him to ‘launch these proceedings’ and the proceedings had been used as a vehicle for ‘getting at the mother’. There was ‘absolutely no merit’ in the case bought by the father. Thus the father had acted unreasonably both in starting the proceedings but more importantly in the way he had conducted himself throughout the proceedings.

Sarah Phillimore 

St Johns Chambers

1st November 2020 

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