1 September 2023

The Family Court and considerations regarding ‘parental alienation’

Parental alienation is not concretely defined, however it is accepted to be a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through ‘alienating behaviours’.

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Parental alienation is not concretely defined, however it is accepted to be a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through ‘alienating behaviours’. The Family Court has taken the view that it is a question of fact as to whether parental alienation may have occurred, and it is on a case-by-case basis.

It is considered that parental alienation is not a distinct syndrome that can be easily diagnosed, but can be identified through patterns of behaviour perpetrated by one parent through their child, and accordingly affecting the child’s relationship with their other parent.

How do the Family Courts view parental alienation?

This is significant for the Family Court, as such behaviour can be found to amount to a form of emotional and psychological abuse, and will have an impact on the child’s willingness to spend time with a parent but for the alienation occurring.

In recent cases, the Court has considered the impact of expert witnesses being utilised to provide whether parental alienation has occurred. Whilst it is recognised as being important to identify parental alienation, it has come to light that there is a risk of unqualified ‘experts’ who could give opinions that therefore impact the decision a Family Court Judge makes regarding the time a child will spend with their parent.

Recent cases concerning allegations of parental alienation

In the recent matter of Re C (‘Parental Alienation’); Instruction of Expert) [2023] EWCH 345, the original case concerned allegations of parental alienation by the mother against the father, through the parties’ two children. An expert was appointed who determined that there was, in their opinion, alienation as alleged, and accordingly following review of all evidence to date, the Judge determined that the children should live with their father, and be removed from the care of their mother. Contact was ordered to take place in a structured manner between the children and their mother. In the appeal, as cited above, the mother’s grounds were that the expert instructed incorrectly held herself out as a psychologist and so unqualified to give the diagnoses in her report, and therefore the judge was incorrect to give weight to the evidence and to accept the same.

The Court determined in the appeal that there is no definition of ‘expert’ in Family proceedings. It was also reconfirmed that the Court will only allow expert evidence to be heard if the ‘evidence is necessary to assist the Court to resolve the proceedings justly’. It was heard in evidence that the use of the term ‘psychologist’ is a broad one, and cannot be restricted in its use, in comparison to a ‘clinical psychologist’ which is a protected title.

The Court therefore decided there is a need for ‘rigour’ to identify and approving an expert to be instructed in family proceedings, so that it can be determined if the proposed expert has the necessary qualifications to assist the Court in the proceedings. With regards to the parental alienation as found in the original case, the Court dismissed the mother’s appeal, and held that that the determination of whether parental alienation exists is not for an expert to diagnose, but instead is the Court’s view as to ‘the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents’. In short, whilst the use of experts in family proceedings may help the Court make a decision on where a child should live, such decisions are underpinned by the Court reviewing the overall evidence and seeing if there is ‘alienating behaviour’ that has occurred, rather than ‘whether the label of parental alienation can be applied’.

The best interests of the children involved are the Courts paramount consideration where parental alienation has been identified

On the basis of the Court’s decision as above, and in other recent cases, it is clear that parental alienation is a serious concern for the Court, but the focus has been placed on ensuring that the pattern of alienating behaviour has been identified, rather than focusing on the abstract label of parental alienation. It is also clear from the Court that there must be a review of the overall evidence to determine whether the alienating behaviour exists, and so the Court’s paramount consideration will be to make an order to act in the best interests of the children involved.

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