Parental Alienation: what can the Court do?

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As family solicitors we work with separating parents who cannot come to agreed arrangements in relation to their children; and this includes as to who a child should live with and how much time they should spend with the other parent. Sometimes when clients instruct us the views of the two parents have become so entrenched and diametrically opposed, that reaching a child-centred agreement is not possible.  

In 2019 the president of the Family Division reported that 38% of separating couples make an application to the Family Court to resolve a dispute involving their children.  An allegation that we hear over and over again when a parent seeks legal advice from us is that one parent is being alienated from their child by the behaviour and deliberate actions of the other parent.  Parental alienation is not a new concept to the Family Court or family lawyers in children disputes but is it real and what can the Court do about it?  

What is Parental Alienation? 

Brainwashing, programming and indoctrination are all terms which we hear clients reporting the other parent is subjecting their child to, which are causing that child to show a high level of animosity towards the client.  In most cases, the same child previously had a loving relationship with the alienated parent before the parents separated. Parental alienation is certainly a concept which is frequently alleged in intractable contact disputes but as family and specialist children law lawyers it is important to look behind labels. 

How can your family lawyer help?

The Children Act 1989, s1 states that when the Court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, the child’s welfare shall be the Court’s paramount consideration.  When considering how much time a child should spend with each parent, and which parent a child should live with the Court must have regard to: 

  • the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding); 
  • the child's physical, emotional and educational needs; 
  • the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances; 
  • the child' age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant; 
  • any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering; 
  • how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting the child' needs.

Therefore, the Family Court is less interested in identifying concepts, for example parental alienation, and is duty bound to investigate what particular behaviour by which particular parent in regard to a particular child is taking place, and if such behaviour by that parent is found to be abusive then specific action must be taken to protect that child.  

Therefore, as children lawyers we will work with our clients to understand what behaviour the child is exhibiting which is causing our client to feel alienated.  Then we must evidence that behaviour in order to prove to the Court that the child’s relationship with their parent has broken down and prove that the child’s behaviour is as a result of abusive behaviour by the other parent.  

The type of behaviour which a child may exhibit include:

  • a campaign of denigrating comments;
  • weak rationalisations for their actions;
  • defiant and disrespectful behaviour;
  • an absence of guilt or remorse for their behaviour.  

Also, unwarranted rejection of one parent and an alliance with the other which can extend to animosity to the extended family or the alienated parent.  Within this scenario it is also often alleged by the alienating parent, that the other parent poses a risk to the emotional well-being of the child, that the child does not want to spend time with them and to make the child do so will cause emotional harm to the child.

The behaviour explained above however, should not be confused with the legitimate animosity and hostility that a child may feel towards a parent who has neglected or abused that child.  It is also important for parents to understand however deliberate and extreme a child’s behaviour and views can be, the emotions they are experiencing are real and need to be addressed sensitively.  The Family Court will above all else make decisions to protect the welfare of a child.  

What can the Court do?

It is important for the Court to make findings on the Court record as soon as possible to prove that alienation is taking place.  Delay in instructing a solicitor to advise and represent you in pursuing the allegations provides greater opportunity for a parent to continue to negatively influence a child and for the child’s views to become further entrenched.  Also the child can reach an age whereby the Court will not or cannot make orders in respect of their upbringing.   

  • The Court has the power to make orders determining where a child should live and how much time they spend with the other parent and in what circumstances that contact should take place.  
    • Contact could be ordered to take place in a contact centre or in the presence of a third party, i.e. safety measures which can reassure the child they are safe and facilitate contact.
    • Direct contact can be ordered to take place at levels determined by the Court
    • Residence of a child can be transferred to the alienated parent, if the Court believes it is the only way to facilitate a relationship with the that parent and it will not cause the child emotional harm.  
  • The Court can make orders for psychological assessments to determine the ability of a parent to understand their actions and ability to change their behaviour.
  • If orders are ignored and contact is not facilitated the Court can make orders of enforcement which includes committing a parent to prison, imposing orders for community service and ordering a parent pay a fine.  This obviously does not facilitate the contact taking place but it is designed to incentive the alienating parent from continuing their behaviour.

What can you do?

Every family is different and every client we work with will have a different set of personal circumstances.  It is very important to seek legal advice as early as possible, avoid delay which can lead to increased opportunity for negative reinforcement and always remain focussed on the welfare and well-being of the child involved.

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