Parental alienation: what are the issues?

Fri 18th Nov 2022

One of Britain’s most senior judges is examining issues relating to the regulation and legitimacy of court-appointed experts in cases, particularly those involving ‘parental alienation’. Christopher Johns from Coodes’ family team explains more…

President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane, the most senior Family Court judge in England, is currently reviewing the issues surrounding an important appeal hearing at the High Court in London.

The appeal was brought by a mother who had her children permanently removed from her care after a court-appointed expert found she had ‘alienated’ her children from their father.

The mother is challenging the qualifications of the expert who she alleges was ‘not appropriately qualified’ and not regulated by any professional body.

For me, this high-profile case brings two issues into focus: the concept of parental alienation and the regulation of court-appointed experts.

What is ‘parental alienation’?

Parental alienation is the idea that there is unjustified resistance or hostility from a child towards a parent because of psychological manipulation by the other parent.

It is a fairly new and often hotly disputed issue in Family Court proceedings. It remains a largely undefined term and the challenge is to find evidence that parental alienation is actually happening.

During the breakdown of a relationship, it is, unfortunately, fairly common for children to be exposed to one parent’s negative views about the other. The Family Court will often outline an expectation that parents do not expose children to these negative views because it places the child at potential risk of emotional harm.

In some cases, however, you find that children are unwilling to spend time with a parent and there is no obvious reason why. At that stage, you have to start digging down and trying to find out what is going on behind these expressed wishes and feelings.

If you have got a true case of parental alienation, the skillset of a psychologist with significant experience can be helpful. But it has to be the right expert.

Addressing this issue

Sir Andrew McFarlane has been directed to oversee the appeal case at the High Court and consider the wider issues relating to the regulation of court-appointed experts.

The only psychologists subject to statutory regulation in the UK are those registered with the Health and Care Professional Council (HCPC), although experts who do not qualify for registration can still be appointed at the discretion of the court.

Sir Andrew MacFarlane’s review is much needed because of the seriousness of the outcome of this high-profile case – where children have been removed from the care of their mother, based on evidence from a court-appointed expert.

The case in question represents quite a rare situation but ‘parental alienation’ is an evolving and more common issue raised in children cases. That is the nature of the Family Court system, as society evolves there will always be new issues that arise, and the law has to develop around them.

Any guidance about the standards needed for a relevant court expert is to be welcomed, particularly at a time when the Family Court is dealing with an ever-increasing number of applications. We look forward to hearing the outcome.

Fri 18th Nov 2022

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