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.

4 thoughts on “When Facts Don’t Matter

  1. Peter Davies

    Hi Sarah.

    I have to admit to agreeing with everything you have written here and I suspect that I would agree with a great deal more that you have not written yet!

    I’m still putting together a complaint to OFCOM. It’s very bulky I’m afraid. Frankly, the journalistic standards on show in the Dispatches article were dismal and much of the content ranged from misleading to fabricated. Any resemblence between what I saw and reality appeared tome nomore than a coincidence. The people that do basic checking for the editorial team seem to have been on holiday.

    I have long been a supporter of independence in broadcasting but the program provided a sound argument for much tighter editorial standards. Clearly, this is the reverse of the principles of openness which the program claimed to be about.

    I fully support moves to open up the family courts but one point in particular struck me about the program. That is, during the last couple of years, and culminating with Re S which was published on April 29th last year, there were no less than 6 published cases involving alienation from March 2019 to April 2020. Re S is important as it is authoritative and comes from th court of appeal. However, none of these judgments received a mention in the program which is quite remarkable because, given that the program claimed that alienation was ‘rare,’ 6 published judgments in the space of a year clearly does not concur with ‘Dispatches’ or Cardiff University’s gut feelings in this respect.

    The lack of attention given to the primary sources i.e published judgments on the one hand and the excessive Creedence given to anecdotal evidence on the other hand was fairly typical of the bias in the program. It also begs another question. What is the point in the courts being more transparent and publishing anything when the judgments which are published now are so flagrantly brushed aside in favour of anecdotes, cherry picking, pet belief systems and obsessive ideology?

    Is educating the offenders the answer or are we really talking about deradicalisation?

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree with you – it is infuriating that there was (deliberately I suspect) no clarity about what was actual footage and what was a drama. I am glad you are complaining to Ofcom. I am baffled as to why no mention at all was made to the many published judgments in cases involving parental alienation. I am afraid it cements my suspicions that additional ‘transparency’ in the family court system will serve no purpose other than to allow bad faith actors further opportunities for self aggrandisement.

      So I am afraid I think many of this campaigners are simply resistant to ‘education’ and we must pull them up by the roots.

  2. Laurence de Mello

    The second tipstaff raid with “Edward” and “Alex is real, as are their voices and the audio of the raid.. Sadly the story was misrepresented by omission. ” [I have redacted this comment as I am not entirely sure to what it relates but I am concerned there may be a breach of section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act by giving information about court proceedings which you do not have permission to share. I also appreciate that my caution about this is indicative of the real difficulty we all face in trying to discuss this openly and honestly]

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