Diary of a Divorce Lawyer: May 2021

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Diary of a Divorce Lawyer: May 2021

Piers Pressdee QC is one of the country’s top family law silks. We have worked together on a number of complex child arrangements disputes over the years and have become good friends. Piers brings a psychological intuition to his cases that enables him to see things more clearly than most lawyers. Whilst we wait for the restaurants to open, we meet for a zoom lunch of tuna sashimi and diet coke.

The conversation quickly turns to parental alienation; a concept that has been around for a long time but is not without its critics. Parental alienation is where a child develops a resistance or hostility towards one parent, which is not justified. This is as a result of psychological manipulation by the other parent usually where a family has broken down and the parents have separated. This alienation can be extremely emotionally damaging to the child and the effects on the parent-child relationship can last a lifetime.

Piers and I chat about a client I am advising currently. He has not seen his daughter, who lives with her mother, for over three months. The girl, who is 11 years old, says that she does not want to see him but there is no obvious reason for the child’s reluctance other than the hostility between parents.

There are two sides to every situation. I have dealt with cases where parental alienation has been alleged by a parent who is controlling or coercive to cover up their own failings. Sometimes the reality is that the child simply does not want to spend time with that parent for their own reasons, particularly where there is a difficult divorce or family breakdown.

Where a contact dispute arises and issues of parental alienation are alleged, it is essential that a parent takes action to protect the child and their wellbeing. Inevitably this may mean that the Family Court becomes involved. Usually experts specialising in family therapy or child psychology are appointed by the Court to assist the parties resolve matters and if the case cannot be settled, a hearing fixed where a judge is asked to decide what is in the child’s best interests.

I ask Piers how he can tell the difference between alienation and a difficult family breakdown where a child feels torn.

“It is incredibly difficult, children have their own coping mechanisms and sometimes it’s easier and less traumatic for a child to pick a side. Children have feelings and needs and where their parents are polarised they are bound to feel the effects. But these cases must be differentiated from cases where there is emotional abuse at work. This is where expert advice may need to be brought in to establish what is going on”, says Piers.

“What advice would you give a parent who fears that emotional abuse or alienation is at play, whether they are being accused of it or fear the other parent is exercising it ?” I ask Piers.

  • “The first thing is to try and identify the abuse. It doesn’t matter if it is malicious or not, the motive is not relevant, it’s the effect that matters. Get good legal advice as soon as possible. Legal advisors should consider the facts of the case and make an application to Court if the situation cannot be resolved between the parents. The Court will then list a hearing.
  • Where a process of alienation is found to exist, (and it may be determined that it does not) there is a spectrum of severity. The court’s first inclination will be to reason with parents and seek to persuade them to take the right course for their child’s sake, and it will only make orders when it is better than not to do so.
  • Whilst a change in the child’s main home is a highly significant alteration in that child’s circumstances, such a change is not regarded as ‘a last resort’. The Court must consider all the circumstances and choose the best welfare solution.
  • The Court must be alert to early signs of alienation. What will amount to effective action will be a matter of judgement, but it is not necessary to wait for serious, worse still irreparable, harm to be done before appropriate action is taken.”

As we round up our lunch and I think of my client who has not seen his daughter for three months, I cannot imagine how difficult it is for him. I call him to advise that he take decisive action now before the damage becomes irreparable and it is too late.

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