Weekly Family Law Update November 10, 2023

Parental alienation is in the news again, but what is it, and how does the court respond?

Parental alienation is an increasingly common issue raised in disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, but what exactly is it, and how does the family court respond to allegations of parental alienation?

Parental alienation in the news

‘Parental alienation’ is a relatively recent term, originating in the USA in the 1980s, but now in common use over here. In fact, it is often referred to in the media, including making a recent appearance in a BBC documentary.

The documentary told of how a study involving 45 women had found that dozens of their children had been forced into contact with fathers accused of abuse, and that in all cases the fathers had made allegations of parental alienation against the mothers.

The study, led by University of Manchester researchers, highlighted the serious health problems the mothers had suffered as a result, they say, of biased family court proceedings. Lead researcher, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno claimed that the courts tend to side with the male perpetrators of abuse, by accepting parental alienation allegations, which she described as “a pseudoscientific belief system designed to control women and deny abuse”.

The tendency for the courts to side with men, she said, could be explained by lack of training for judges and court professionals around coercive control and domestic abuse, and a culture of misogyny and woman and victim-blaming which is prevalent in society.

A misunderstood concept

Whilst many in the family justice system will no doubt take issue with the suggestion that they tend to side with men (in any event alienation allegations can of course be made by mothers as well), Dr Dalgarno is certainly correct when she refers to parental alienation as a “pseudoscientific belief system”.

In fact, parental alienation has often been referred to as a “syndrome”, as if it is some sort of medical condition that can be diagnosed.

But such an idea has been roundly rejected by the courts.

A recent High Court case involved the Association of Clinical Psychologists (‘ACP-UK’), who stated in their evidence:

“Much like an allegation of domestic abuse, the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that “parental alienation” is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, “alienating behaviours”. It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.”

The President of the Family Division, who was hearing the case, commented that this paragraph deserved to be widely understood, and strongly urged that it be accepted. He went on:

“…Most Family judges have, for some time, regarded the label of ‘parental alienation’, and the suggestion that there may be a diagnosable syndrome of that name, as being unhelpful. What is important, as with domestic abuse, is 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 this regard, the identification of ‘alienating behaviour’ should be the court’s focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label ‘parental alienation’ can be applied.”

How the courts respond to alienation allegations

The way that the courts respond to alienation allegations was clearly demonstrated in another recent case.

The case concerned arrangements for two children, in which the father had made parental alienation allegations against the mother.

The court ordered that a psychologist be appointed to undertake a psychological assessment of both the parents and the children. The order expressly invited the psychologist to provide an opinion about parental alienation.

The mother appealed against the order.

Allowing the appeal, the judge made it clear that the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the court to resolve, and not a diagnosis that could or should be offered by a psychologist. He said: “It is the Court’s function to make factual determinations necessary to inform welfare decisions for the child, not to delegate that role to an expert. The identification of alienating behaviours should be the Court’s focus, where it is necessary and demanded by the individual circumstances of the case for the Court to make such factual determinations leading to final welfare decisions for the child.”

In summary, allegations of parental alienation do not have some special status so far as the court is concerned. The court will simply determine the truth of the allegations, in the same way as any other allegations by either parent against the other.