The Costly Impact Of Parental Alienation
The breakdown of any relationship, such as a marriage, is not necessarily a pleasant experience.
Nevertheless, in my professional experience, many couples manage to divide their joint assets and – particularly – provide for their children’s future after they themselves separate without rancour.
However, there are still cases in which conflict does occur to varying degrees.
One glance at occasional news reports or – more usefully – the figures issued by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) illustrate the frequency with which parents have to turn to the family courts for help in resolving disputes about their children’s upbringing.
The most recent data shows, for instance, an increase in recent years in the number of proceedings in relation to what are known as Specific Issue Orders (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2023).
These are orders sought by parents to determine a specific question relating to their children and can cover any one of a multitude of issues, including whether and where children go on holiday, what they eat, their medical treatment or where they go to school.
In the last four years, the number of applications for Specific Issue Orders has risen by 40 per cent – a clear indication of how often parents do not see eye to eye when it comes to children’s welfare.
Such disagreements are not without consequence. Whereas some can delay the ability of parents and children alike to move on with their lives, there are more extreme cases which have an even more dramatic impact.
In 2019, the Government announced a consultation about how the family court system protects children and parents whenever there are claims of domestic abuse and other serious offences.
A resulting report, published the following year, made for compelling reading, not least because it drew attention to the attempts of some mothers and fathers to turn children against their fellow parents (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/895173/assessing-risk-harm-children-parents-pl-childrens-cases-report_.pdf).
The document acknowledged that “‘parental alienation’ is a contested concept”. In fact, there is no single definition of what constitutes such behaviour.
Even so, many people rely on the terminology of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), the body which represents children in proceedings.
It has described alienation as “an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs…that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with the other parent” (Alienating behaviours – Cafcass – Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).
Furthermore, according to Cafcass, alienation “is one of a number of reasons why a child may reject or resist spending time with one parent post-separation”.
A judgement handed down in the last few weeks has emphasised that the damage is not simply theoretical (Judgment Archives – Courts and Tribunals Judiciary). It concluded a long-running and very acrimonious dispute between the parents of two teenagers. Mr Justice Keehan said how the children’s mother had engaged in “a sustained, conscious and deliberate campaign to continue to alienate the children from the father”.
In pursuing “her own agenda…without any regard whatsoever to the well-being and welfare best interests of the children”, the judge explained that she had “caused the children significant emotional harm, has consumed significant Court and police resources” and led to their father incurring substantial legal costs.
Mr Justice Keehan felt that the harm which already occurred and was likely to continue to occur was so severe that it merited the children being removed from the mother’s care, placed with the father and having no further contact whatsoever with their mother.
This is an extreme outcome but one that highlights both the seriousness of the potential damage when parents behave in such a way and the actions which are open to a court under these sorts of situations.
It is rare in children’s law cases for costs to be awarded against one parent or another. A notable 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court outlined how it should only happen in the event of “reprehensible behaviour” (https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2010-0244-judgment.pdf ).
Mr Justice Keehan decided that, in the recent case, that threshold had been met, resulting in the mother being ordered to pay the father’s legal bills of £240,954. One reason why a cost order is unusual is that it might give the impression of parents winning or losing rather than retaining an essential focus on the welfare of the children concerned.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that in circumstances such as those considered by Mr Justice Keehan, they are perfectly appropriate, given that such conduct can create lasting damage. It should serve as a warning to others.
The size of the sums involved reflects how difficult it can be to prove allegations of parent alienation – or, in the case heard by Mr Justice Keehan, take immense time, effort and expense to disprove.
Some in parliament are even convinced that the issue is so grave that it should be considered by a public inquiry.
In March this year, the MP for Coventry North West, Taiwo Owatemi, said the potential for false alienation claims to complicate parental disputes amounted to the “most damning aspect of our family court system”(MPs call for inquiry into use of ‘alienation’ claims in parental disputes | Family law | The Guardian).
That strength of feeling underlines why demonstrable instances of alienation should be treated with the utmost seriousness.