Tag Archives: parental alienation

When Facts Don’t Matter

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

Am I a ‘troll’ or a ‘leading professional’? The answer seems to depend on whether or not I am agreeing with someone’s particular narrative at a particular time, rather than on the quality of my arguments and the state of my evidence.

I have been distracted from the child protection system of late by ever increasing terror at the state of the ‘debate’ over issues of sex and gender and our rights to speak about them. But I haven’t strayed too far from this arena. And there are many similarities; here I find exactly the same kind of damaging rejection of facts in pursuit of what appears to be a religious fever that corrupts meaningful discussion. There is the exact same pushing of a precooked and preconceived narrative to achieve a campaigning end – truth, facts and the welfare of children be damned.

So what’s happened now to provoke an irritated blog post? There has been a clear build up over several years now of a campaign to persuade law and policy makers that the family court system is a tool of misogynistic oppression, which is designed to ‘hand over’ children to violent men and punish women who dare allege that they have been abused. The campaigners scored a considerable victory with the Ministry of Justice ‘Harm Report’ in June 2020. I have set out my concerns about this report and its conclusions here; in brief it was argued on the basis of self selected ‘lived experience’ that the ‘pro contact culture’ of the family courts meant that children were not protected from the invariably male domestic abusers.

However, the Court of Appeal put the brakes on with their decision Re H-N and Others (children) (domestic abuse: finding of fact hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448 which I wrote about here. Many campaigners appeared to be expecting a wholesale demolition of the family court system and recognition that judges simply couldn’t be trusted to even identify domestic abuse, let alone be aware of case law and practice directions about how to deal with it. But the Court of Appeal concluded:

We are therefore of the view that PD12J is and remains, fit for the purpose for which it was designed namely to provide the courts with a structure enabling the court first to recognise all forms of domestic abuse and thereafter on how to approach such allegations when made in private law proceedings. As was also recognised by The Harm Panel, we are satisfied that the structure properly reflects modern concepts and understanding of domestic abuse

But the campaigners weren’t daunted. They came back fighting with a Dispatches documentary ‘Torn Apart’ which aired on July 20th 2021. It’s basic message seemed to be that ‘parental alienation’ wasn’t a real thing, but rather a strategy of vile abusing men to ensure that children were ‘torn apart’ from their loving mothers, at the behest of the criminally incompetent and dysfunctional family court system.

‘Parental alienation’ is a phrase to describe what happens when a child is effectively brainwashed by one parent to refuse contact with the other. It’s a real thing, that sadly men and women do to their children, it causes immense emotional harm and there is a wealth of case law about it. I have written about it here and here if you want to read more. In the minority of really intractable cases the court may order the children to be removed from the alienating parent, either into foster care or to live with the other parent. This is done because the court’s primary duty is to secure the welfare of the child, not to ‘punish’ or ‘reward’ either parent.

If you haven’t seen the documentary, watch and make up your own mind. I will just share a few of the comments I received via email after it aired, from lawyers, psychologists and parent campaigners.

My main complaint is the imbalanced reporting.  Orders for transfer of living arrangements are not common and usually made only at the end of years of litigation, expert and guardian involvement and probably multiple ‘second chances’ for mum (using the example in the documentary).  It was not made clear WHY the Judge had felt a transfer of living arrangements to be in these children’s best interests.

For me it was the failure to acknowledge that PA is actually a real thing.  It is not a gendered issue. Mother’s were represented but not as targeted parents.  Father’s were not represented at all. Grown up children who were alienated as youngsters were not represented.  A balance of expertise was not represented.  It erased the experience of a whole cohort of children, parents and extended families, for whom PA is real, and that was utterly devastating

It’s all very well to use actors in re-enactments, but it was far from clear as to what was real and what was not in this film.  And to use such highly emotive language, tone and even screams with no indication of how much of each is just an artist’s impression rather than an accurate representation of what actually happened. Even mum crying about her babies is unlikely to have been filmed at the time, so the whole thing – and it is the emotional impact that is the issue under consideration – could be entirely misleading.  This is a far cry from a voiceover to maintain anonymity.  Were the kids even real? Surely if they were, this would be breaking the disclosure law? Surely too they could have mocked up dad’s side a little too?  What about giving some indication as to why the judge made the decision in the first place – not exactly a common decision…  This is all way outside any public broadcasting, balanced reporting and truth exposé characteristics previously associated with C4.  Fake news/nudge territory here.  Not even creative!

There was also extensive coverage in newspapers and on social media. I will just highlight one of the articles, written by one of the contributors to Dispatches, a Dr Charlotte Proudman. What makes Proudman’s contribution all the more remarkable is that she is a family law barrister. Yet she felt able to say this, writing in the Guardian on 21st July 2021 under the headline Our family courts are allowing perpetrators to use the bogus idea of ‘parental alienation’ to gain access to their victims.

I have watched, horrified, as parental alienation has become the go-to litigation tactic, often used by domestic abusers to discredit allegations made against them by their ex-partner. Although parental alienation can be raised by either parent, overwhelmingly I see it being deployed as a counter-allegation by fathers when mothers try to prove they or their children have been subjected to abuse.

That may be Proudman’s experience. It certainly isn’t mine, nor that of the many others who have expressed their views via email. I would like to have discussed this with Proudman, but she has blocked my Twitter account, even when she relies on me as a ‘leading professional’ later in the article.

I suspect I am only a ‘leading professional’ because she wishes to cite a letter I wrote to the President of the Family Division about the need to change the rules to prevent unregulated experts from giving evidence in children cases. This is particularly important in cases of parental alienation as often the choices for children are very bleak; leave them to suffer emotional harm or try to remove them and risk a different kind of harm. So its important that we can trust the experts who offer the court their expert opinion. I do not trust any expert who choses not to be subject to external regulation.

I unfairly criticised Proudman for saying the President had refused to consider it; I had hoped that it was simply on the back burner until COVID was over. But she was right, the Family Procedure Rules Committee refused to take action on 8th February 2021 and no one had the courtesy to even let me know. I think this is a mistake and an example of where the family justice system doesn’t help itself. But it does not justify or explain Proudman’s comment that then followed, that this refusal left ‘victims – primarily mothers – and children at risk.’ Unregulated experts are a risk to us all. This isn’t a men versus women situation.

Nor do I accept that the concept of parental alienation is ‘bogus’ or ‘junk science’ as Proudman asserts – I have seen it too often over 20 years.

The article ends in unhelpful hyperbole

The dangerous label of parental alienation is now the single biggest threat to the credibility of victims of domestic abuse, and to the voices of children. It gives validation, power and control to perpetrators. Any court that countenances unevidenced allegations of parental alienation is potentially sanctioning abuse. Sadly, it may take a tragedy before anyone will actually listen.

I suggest that the single biggest threat to the credibility of victims of domestic abuse are the enthusiastic attempts by campaigners like Proudman to remove certain behaviours from scrutiny. Mothers are just as capable of hurting their children as fathers and a failure to recognise this or even actively deny it, promotes giving moral authority to child abusers – something I have argued that the ‘DV Sector’ seem particularly keen to do.

No court should countenance ‘unevidenced’ allegations of parental abuse. Every case where I have dealt with allegations of parental alienation these were anxiously scrutinised over far too many months, leadings to the bitterly ironic situation where the alienation became further entrenched and the harm to the child even greater. Proudman is a barrister. She ought to understand above all the importance and the centrality of evidence in family cases. She ought not to be an enthusiastic proponent of a false narrative that paints the family court system as a frankly insane circus.

There is a great deal wrong with the family court system. It is in crisis. Of that there is no doubt, and I have considered it here, here, and here.

But what it does understand is evidence. Ours is a system which puts ‘proof of facts at its heart’. Children are not ripped from the arms of loving mothers on a whim or to punish them for daring to alleged the father is abusive. The court operates to protect the welfare of the child as its paramount consideration. And often it fails. But this is not because of deliberate misogyny or ignoring evidence. It is for the same dreary, unsexy reasons that many systems fail – because it is the wrong system for the problem at hand. Many family disputes revolve almost entirely around issues which are beyond the court’s reach – the psychological dysfunction of the parents, their emotional pain, their fear, their poverty, their substance abuse, their lack of employment or housing. There are simply not enough judges to make sure that cases are heard quickly enough to prevent nascent alienation hardening into full blown significant emotional harm to a child. And this situation has been made even worse by the backlog caused during lockdown.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. We really need to rip it up and start again. The system is not serving either parents or children. But it is never, ever any solution to allow single issue campaigners to bend the ear of law and policy makers to promote the banging of their own particular drum. We have to look at the facts, not promote one ideology over another.

So until this is done, I will remain Schrodinger’s barrister – simultaneously both a ‘troll’ and a ‘leading professional’, depending on who is listening. But it is not my views that change, only the extent to which some are prepared to accept challenge to a preconceived narrative. I can only hope for better things.

Parental Alienation – what is it? And what can the courts do about it?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

I am writing this post because I am concerned that there is a strong view in certain circles that ‘parental alienation’ either does not exist or is very rare and used as a deliberate strategy by violent men to deny contact with children to the mothers they oppress.

I don’t agree that parental alienation doesn’t exist. There is abundant evidence that it does. Nor do I agree that falsely asserting parental alienation as a strategy is commonplace, although I am sure it does happen.

Therefore I find it concerning to see the very existence or importance of parental alienation ‘downgraded’ by a number of academics and lawyers – particularly when those academics are involved in the recent MoJ report into private law cases. I have set out my criticisms of and concerns about this report here.

I endeavour always to render my criticisms reasonable, balanced and evidenced. So it was surprising and rather shocking to be called a ‘troll’ on social media and accused of ‘picking on’ victim of DV by one of the academics involved in a literature review for the MoJ.

This is not a helpful response from anyone. It is a particularly bizarre and inappropriate response from someone with a seat at the table of political influence.

This view about parental alienation as a ‘grand charade’ is set out here by Rachel Watson in July 2020. She says

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.

I don’t agree with this. It does not reflect my own experience of 20 years in the family courts. That others seem to have a profoundly different experience is worrying. I would like to know what explains the gulf between my understanding and theirs. Given that this will be impossible to achieve in a blog post, I will restrict myself here to addressing the issue of parental alienation as a ‘grand charade’.

What do the courts say about parental alienation?

Let’s look at just two examples from published court judgments. There are sadly many, many more. I hope even this brief discussion makes it clear that ‘parental alienation’ is a phenomenon that exists and which does tremendous harm. Both the alienating parents in these cases were mothers; that does not mean that this is a sex dependent failure of parenting. Fathers can and do alienate their children from their mothers. It is wrong regardless of the sex of the parent who does it.

 D (A child – parental alienation) (Rev 1) [2018] EWFC B64 (19 October 2018).

The child D was born in 2005. Proceedings had been ongoing for over ten years, albeit with a four year respite from 2012 – 2016,  and had cost a staggering amount of money for both parents – about £320,000 over ten years.

There was a residence order made in the father’s favour in 2011 and the mother’s application to appeal was refused in 2012. Following a relatively peaceful four years, the mother then refused to return D to his father’s care in November 2016 and the father did not see D again until March 2017. A final hearing was listed for April 2018 after the instruction of a psychologist.

in early 2018 D made allegations of a serious assault upon him by the father and contact against ceased. The police became involved but took no further action and the Judge granted the father’s application in August 2018 that D give evidence at the finding of fact hearing.

D gave evidence and was very clear, saying (para 74):

I just want a normal life, living in happiness with mum. I cannot go back to my father’s. I was promised by my mum and the police officer that dad wouldn’t hurt me ever again. Now, I am here in court because he hurt me bad. Why can’t I just have a life that isn’t based on court and stress? I just want a life that I can live not live in fear from, please.’

D’s guardian put forward a schedule of six allegations that D made against his father. The court noted the evidence of the psychologist Dr Spooner at para 85.

D presented with what seemed like a pre-prepared and well-rehearsed script of all the things he wanted to tell me about his father. He took every opportunity to denigrate him, his family and his partner. Each time I attempted to ask him about issues not related to his father, such as school, hobbies and so on, he quickly derailed himself and continued on his frivolous campaign of denigration.

The court heard a great deal of evidence from social workers and other experts about the alleged injuries suffered by D. It is disturbing to note how the Judge was not assisted by some of the evidence from the local authority, not least because the social worker who prepared the section 37 report was working from the assumption that everything a child said must be true.

The father denied assaulting D but had to hold his arms when D was being aggressive towards him.  The Judge did not find any of the allegations proved; he found the father and his partner to be honest witnesses and this was a case where the mother was determined to ‘win’ at any cost. The judge found that she had deliberately alienated D from his father.

Analysis of what is meant by ‘parental alienation’

From paragraph 165 the Judge considered the issue of parental alienation. At para 169 he refers to the research Dr Julie Doughty at Cardiff University. She comments:

There is a paucity of empirical research into parental alienation, and what exists is dominated by a few key authors. Hence, there is no definitive definition of parental alienation within the research literature. Generally, it has been accepted that parental alienation refers to the unwarranted rejection of the alienated parent by the child, whose alliance with the alienating parent is characterised by extreme negativity towards the alienated parent due to the deliberate or unintentional actions of the alienating parent so as to adversely affect the relationship with the alienated parent. Yet, determining unwarranted rejection is problematic due to its multiple determinants, including the behaviours and characteristics of the alienating parent, alienated parent and the child. This is compounded by the child’s age and developmental stage as well as their personality traits, and the extent to which the child internalises negative consequences of triangulation. This renders establishing the prevalence and long-term effects of parental alienation difficult…’

At para 170 the Judge considers the CAFCASS assessment framework for private law cases. The assessment contains a 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 on 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.

Re A (Children) (Parental alienation) [2019] EWFC

The Judge said this about the case

In a recent report to the court, one of this country’s leading consultant child and adolescent psychiatrists, Dr Mark Berelowitz, said this: ‘this is one of the most disconcerting situations that I have encountered in 30 years of doing such work.’ I have been involved in family law now for 40 years and my experience of this case is the same as that of Dr Berelowitz. It is a case in which a father leaves the proceedings with no contact with his children despite years of litigation, extensive professional input, the initiation of public law proceedings in a bid to support contact and many court orders. It is a case in which I described the father as being ‘smart, thoughtful, fluent in language and receptive to advice;’ he is an intelligent man who plainly loves his children. Although I have seen him deeply distressed in court because of things that have occurred, I have never seen him venting his frustrations. It is also a case in which the mother has deep and unresolved emotional needs, fixed ideas and a tendency to be compulsive.

The Judge felt it was important for this judgment to be published, albeit heavily anonymised to protect the identities of the children.

My intention in releasing this judgement for publication is not because I wish to pretend to be in a position to give any guidance or speak with any authority; that would be presumptuous, wrong and beyond my station. However, this is such an exceptional case that I think it is in the public interest for the wider community to see an example of how badly wrong things can go and how complex cases are where one parent (here the mother) alienates children from the other parent. It is also an example of how sensitive the issues are when an attempt is made to transfer the living arrangements of children from a residential parent (here, the mother) to the other parent (the father); the attempts to do so in this case failed badly.

The UK Parental Alienation Study

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.


Of course, the same criticisms can be made about this survey as I made about the MoJ survey. We have to be careful about the results of a survey conducted with the self selecting. The MoJ reassured itself this was ok because the wide ranging review of case law and literature supported the view of the self selecting respondents that family courts routinely ignore issues of violence.

The problem however, as I pointed out above, is when you have someone conducting your literature review who thinks that those who talk about parental alienation as a real thing are ‘trolls’.

It is my view that the case law abundantly supports the findings of the Good Egg Safety report. Parental alienation exists and it does enormous harm to the children and parents caught up in it. It is not restricted to women as perpetrators – but I am sad to say that in all the cases of parental alienation in which I have been involved over 20 years, the majority of those found to be perpetrators by the court were women.

It also does enormous harm to the rule of law and respect for court orders. Pretending it doesn’t exist or that it exists primarily as a strategic tool for abusive men to further their abuse is plain wrong. I suspect those who promote this theory know on some level how wrong they are, given the level of abuse and insults they throw at anyone who challenges them.

You may not like what I say. You may – with some justification I concede – accuse me of rudeness or abruptness in the way I say it. But I am no troll. That is a baseless, insulting assertion and it will not help your arguments gain or sustain any credibility whatsoever.

For those now asking in despair – but what do we DO about all this? I set out some suggestions in this post. But as many of them will involve a significant financial investment in both judges and court buildings, I do not expect to see any change in my life time. But I will continue to do what I can to promote honesty and openness in the public debate about such important issues.

Further reading

Case Law

A case where shared residence was agreed after 10 year dispute – see Re J and K (Children: Private Law) [2014] EWHC 330 (Fam)

See Re C (A Child) [2018] EWHC 557 (Fam) –  Unsuccessful appeal to the High Court by a mother against a decision which transferred the residence of C, aged six, to her father, in light of the mother’s opposition to progressing C’s contact with her father. Permission to appeal was refused as being totally without merit.

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.

Re A and B (Parental Alienation: No 1) 25 Nov 2020 [2020] EWCH 3366 (Fam)

X, Y and Z (Children : Agreed Transfer of Residence) [2021] EWFC 18 (26 February 2021)

Articles and Research

What is the evidence base for orders about indirect contact?

See this article from the Custody Minefield about how intractable contact disputes can go wrong or get worse.

Address from the President of the Family Division to Families Need Fathers, June 2018

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.

The Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) sets out how children may experience parental separation and how this can be understood and acted on in Cafcass. The framework brings together existing guidance and tools, along with a small number of new tools, into four guides which Cafcass private lawpractitioners can use to assess different case factors, including:

  • Domestic abuse where children have been harmed directly or indirectly, for example from the impact of coercive control.
  • Conflict which is harmful to the child such as a long-running court case or mutual hostility between parents which can become intolerable for the child.
  • Child refusal or resistance to spending time with one of their parents or carers which may be due to a range of justified reasons or could be an indicator of the harm caused when a child has been alienated by one parent against the other for no good reason.
  • Other forms of harmful parenting due to factors like substance misuse or severe mental health difficulties.

Resources and Links recommended by the Alienation Experience Blog

Useful analysis of case law from UKAP.ONE

The Empathy Gap 14th June 2020 – Commentary on Adrienne Barnett in “A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales”, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law (Jan 2020). The paper discusses the role of parental alienation within the English and Welsh family courts.

The Empathy Gap 11th June 2020 – Commentary on “U.S. child custody outcomes in cases involving parental alienation and abuse allegations: what do the data show?”, By Joan S. Meier, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law 42:1, 92-105 (2020)

Limits to Self Identification: The Protection of Children

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore.

I was interested to read the decision of Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult), a judgment handed down on April 29th 2020. It covers so much of what has been interesting and challenging for me throughout my career. The damage that even loving parents can do to their children, and the particular harm caused by a parent who puts their own right to self identification above the child’s welfare.

This is a case about a mother who was a member of a cult and a father who wanted their daughter to live with him because he was so worried about her exposure to the cult. His application was refused and the child’s time was divided between the parents; he appealed.

The first Judge to hear the case agreed that the mother was a member of a cult organisation founded in Australia in 1999 by Serge Benhayon, called ‘Universal Medicine’. The mother in turn cross appealed, denying she was a cult member and sought to reduce the amount of time the child spent with her father, relying on historic and repeated allegations that the father had sexually abused the child and he was coercive and controlling.

The father’s appeal ultimately succeeded.

The judgement offers a helpful analysis of the law relating to the weight to be accorded freedom of belief when that conflicts with a child’s welfare. I think it poses some interesting further questions about what areas courts ought to be investigating when faced with other parental systems of belief that are controversial or deny material reality – such as the growing insistence in some quarters that biological sex is a myth and to attribute it to a child is some kind of hateful bigotry.

The law concerning freedom of belief

The court first needed to examine the law concerning freedom of belief. The first Judge carefully surveyed the law’s treatment of sects, cults and minority groups in cases involving children. He recognised that the court had to approach this with caution: the court should not become unnecessarily involved with criticising minority groups and controversial beliefs. The court should only be concerned with the welfare of the child.

The leading decision around religious upbringing is Re G (Education: Religious Upbringing) [2012] EWCA Civ 1233; [2013] 1 FLR 677. This case involved the schooling of children from an ultra-orthodox Jewish background, but the comments of Munby LJ apply equally to belief systems that are not avowedly religious. The Judge is not there to weigh one religion against another and all are entitled to equal respect so long as they are ‘legally and socially acceptable’. The court must recognise Article 9 of the European Convention:

“1 Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2 Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

From this, we can see the right to religious freedom is not absolute but qualified in two ways. Your religion or philosophy is protected only if worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity – see Campbell and Cosans v United Kingdom (No 2) (1982) 4 EHRR 293. Second, how you ‘manifest’ that religion or philosophy – such as in worship or other observance – can be restricted if necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

It is incompatible with any power on the State’s part to assess the legitimacy of religious beliefs; the State must be neutral and impartial – see  Moscow Branch of the Salvation Army v Russia (2007) 44 EHRR 46.

But if a religious practice or belief has negative consequences for a child’s welfare, the court has the power to restrict manifestations of that practice or belief – and in the most extreme cases, remove the child from the care of the parent who will not change their views.

In summary, the court must respect the mother’s beliefs to the extent that the teachings of Universal Medicine are worthy of respect in a democratic society, but the child’s welfare remains the paramount consideration and may override the mother’s rights.

The law concerning parental alienation

The Appeal Court then considered the law around parental alienation. The Court rejected any attempt to enter the debate about labels, agreeing with Sir Andrew McFarlane (see [2018] Fam Law 988) that where behaviour is abusive, protective action must be considered whether or not the behaviour arises from a syndrome or diagnosed condition. The Appeal Court relied upon the CAFCASS definition of alienation.

“When a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”

Such manipulation does not need to be deliberate or malicious. It is the process that matters, not the parent’s motive.

The Appeal Court commented:

Signs of alienation may include portraying the other parent in an unduly negative light to the child, suggesting that the other parent does not love the child, providing unnecessary reassurance to the child about time with the other parent, contacting the child excessively when with the other parent, and making unfounded allegations or insinuations, particularly of sexual abuse.

These cases can be very difficult but the courts are under a positive obligation imposed by Article 8 of the ECHR, to strive to find some resolution, particularly as the passage of time often leads to a determination of the matter by default, as a child simply hardens negative views towards the absent parent.

As McFarlane LJ said in Re A (Intractable Contact Dispute: Human Rights Violations) [2013] EWCA Civ 1104; [2014] 1 FLR 1185 at 53: 

The conduct of human relationships, particularly following the breakdown in the relationship between the parents of a child, are not readily conducive to organisation and dictat by court order; nor are they the responsibility of the courts or the judges. But, courts and judges do have a responsibility to utilise such substantive and procedural resources as are available to them to determine issues relating to children in a manner which affords paramount consideration to the welfare of those children and to do so in a manner, within the limits of the court’s powers, which is likely to be effective as opposed to ineffective.”

The courts have to keep the child’s medium to long term welfare in mind, as the temptation may well be to take the short term path of least resistance as less stressful for everyone. However the court must not wait for serious harm to be done before taking appropriate action.

The Facts

The parents separated in 2012 when the child was about a year old, so at the time of the appeal hearing, she was aged 9 years.

The father moved out but continued to spend time with his daughter on alternate weekends. About the same time as the separation the mother became a ‘student’ of ‘Universal Medicine’.

The Judge did not need to decide if this was a ‘religion’, but found it was a ‘belief system’ to which the mother was strongly aligned. The founder of this system, Serge Benhayon, was described by an expert on cults, the Rev Dr David Millikan, in this way:

Benhayon hovers over his followers with a myriad of pronouncements about how they should behave. His teachings, cloaked in the robes of sanctity, prescribe what food they can eat. He has strict rules on clothes, work, physical exercise, how to speak and move, how sex works (he encourages orgasms like a hermaphrodite), how to treat children, how to dispose of their money, what books to read, who to talk to, what media to read or watch, how to treat family and friends who complain about their discipleship. Piece by piece their lives are recast in the mode of Benhayon himself.”

As is common with cults, its members will lose the capacity to question what they are taught and will consider those outside the ‘closed system’ as unable to understand. Relationships with family or friends who aren’t in the cult becomes very difficult, or are severed entirely.

The father was particularly concerned by the attitude of the cult towards food, collecting information which showed what categories of food were allowed or disapproved of by Universal Medicine. The categories include “Fiery foods”, “Pranic foods” (said to hinder the flow of the light of the soul and the body, including all wheat and grain and dairy milk … ) and “Evil foods”.

Other concerning cult practices included “Esoteric ovary massage” which is said to offer women “a true healing to deconstruct the emotional inputs and blockages that may lay suppressed in the ovaries, consequence to the many experiences a woman has endured throughout her life that have had the effect to the relationship she holds with herself”. There is apparently no evidence in support of any of the cult’s practices which were ‘developed’ by the cult founder Benhayon, described as a ‘former bankrupt tennis coach from New South Wales’.

When his daughter was three, the father became increasingly concerned about her restricted diet and the influence of this cult upon the mother’s parenting. The local authority assessed and found a good relationship between mother and child. The social worker thought the mother’s ideas were somewhat ‘fixed’ but did not pose a safeguarding concern.

The father applied for a child arrangements order so that his daughter would share time equally between her parents and a specific issue order so that she would not have any further dealings with Universal Medicine.

The mother objected, and asserted that that Universal Medicine was not a cult but rather “an award-winning complementary healthcare organisation bringing many benefits to its adherents, herself included.”

“Serge provides the absolute reflection of integrity and truth,and of unwavering love for all in service untiringly andunceasingly… No greater role model have I ever met.”

CAFCASS reported in April 2017 and recommended that the child should not attend any Universal Medicine events until she was old enough to make informed choices, reporting concern that the child would become segregated and that would impact on her formation of relationships.

The parents were able to agree shared care and the mother was prohibited from taking the child to UM events before she was 16, imposing any teachings or doctrines or initiating discussions about UM.

By July 2018 the father was concerned that the mother was not sticking to this agreement and in fact the influence of UM over their child had increased.

In October 2018 an Australian court [Benhayon v Rockett (No 8) 2019 NSWSC 169] found that Universal Medicine was a socially harmful cult and Benhayon to be a sexually predatory charlatan who had assaulted female students and had an indecent interest in children as young as ten.

The father therefore issued his application for his daughter to come and live with him and have no further involvement with the cult. The father set out a schedule of allegations against the mother. In May 2019 the court refused the father’s application for a psychological assessment of the child but ordered a report from an Independent Social Worker. The matter was listed for a three day final hearing in November 2019.

The father said that he did not trust the mother to distance herself from Universal Medicine and although their daughter would be devastated to spend less time with her mother, to remove her from the mother’s care would be the lesser of two evils.

The mother rejected the father’s criticisms of Universal Medicine and alleged he was coercive and controlling. The Independent Social Worker found that the mother’s involvement was harmful to the child, in terms of restricted diet, behaviour and beliefs. She recommended that the child live with her father and have supervised contact with her mother.

The mother then changed her legal team and instructed her new lawyer to strike out the father’s application altogether on the grounds that any transfer of residence would breach the mother’s Article 8, 9 and 10 rights. This application was dismissed and the matter continued to trial. The mother asserted that the Australian judgment was nothing to do with her and it was discriminatory to require the child to give up her ‘thoughts and conscience’.

The Judge’s Decision and the Appeal

The Judge rejected any allegation that the father was coercive or controlling. He was motivated by concern for his child’s welfare. He thought the mother seemed genuine in her agreement to dissociate herself from Universal Medicine if it meant her daughter would stay with her.

Both parents loved their daughter and could meet her practical needs. The Judge concluded that the order which would best meet the child’s welfare was a return to the arrangements in 2017, after weighing up the harm presented by Universal Medicine against the distress that the child would feel if spending less time with her mother. The court was persuaded that the mother was ‘sincere and genuine’ in her assertions that she would ‘modify’ her thinking about Universal Medicine.

The father appealed, on the basis that the Judge had given inadequate reasons for not following the recommendations of the ISW and that by January 2020 it was clear that the mother was backtracking from her undertakings and that the child arrangements order had already been wholly disrupted.

The mother responded to seek a reduction of the father’s time with the child, on the basis that historic allegations of sexual abuse had not been properly investigated and that the mother could not be asked to give up her her beliefs.

The Court of Appeal rejected the mother’s cross appeal and found that the Judge had been entirely correct in his evaluation of the facts and that Universal Medicine was a harmful cult. What was at issue here was his evaluation of how this applied to the child’s welfare and what orders should be made. It was clear that the mother was not going to stick to her undertakings. She had raised issues of sexual impropriety against the father since 2015. This supported the father’s case about parental alienation but had not been considered by the Judge.

The court therefore decided to give the mother one last chance to demonstrate that she would reject any adherence to the cult, failing which the child would move to live with her father. The final hearing was listed for July 2020.

EDIT On 15th July 2020 the court decided that the child should move immediately to her father’s care, as the mother was not able to show that she had made the necessary break with the cult. See Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult: Transfer of Primary Care) [2020] EWHC 1940 (Fam)


This case is a fascinating example of parental alienation but also a very useful examination and summary of the authorities relating to freedom of religious or philosophical belief and how rights can exist in serious tension with one another.

The mother has a right to religious freedom. But equally her daughter has a right to a healthy diet, to grow up to make her own choices and to have a relationship with her father. The court found that the child’s right to be free of a ‘harmful and sinister’ cult outweighed the mother’s right to continued adherence to it. However the mother would be given one last and short chance to show she could break away from the cult and promote her child’s welfare.

I wonder what parallels can be drawn between this case and the continuing debate about ‘transgender children’. Is there really much distinction between a harmful cult that puts food into categories (including ‘evil’) and promotes ‘esoteric ovary massage’ and a belief system that holds that biological sex does not exist but rather we can chose from infinite ‘genders’?

Both are products of adult minds. Neither have any foundations in fact. Both, if imposed on children from a young age have the potential to do harm. The welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration and that will require clear, honest and thorough weighing of a variety of factors in every such case.

Further reading

In whose best interests? Transgender Children: Choices and Consequences

No one, no issue is off the table when it comes to safeguarding

You had better make some noise – abusers will exploit bad laws and poor safeguarding