Occasionally, as a family solicitor, I come across a case that makes my heart sink.
That feeling overwhelmed me when I read the recent judgment of the case Q and R (Intractable Contact), which can only be described as an extreme example of the serious issue of parental alienation.
Parental alienation is a concept recognised by an increasing number of lawyers and psychologists. In simplest terms it arises when a parent manipulates the child to show unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards the other parent. Not only does it damage a child’s relationship with the other parent, it can have a detrimental to a child’s mental health in the longer term.
For an estranged parent undergoing separation or post-divorce, it might be tempting to seek to turn a child against their ex. The acrimony from a split can so easily spill into the parenting arena, over parenting styles, behaviour and influences.
The danger zone is reached when the criticism is so repeated and effective that the child starts to believe and take as their own the negative images of that parent and in turn becomes self-sabotaging of that relationship.
There are a number of reported cases that have dealt with complaints about parental alienation, where the alienated party seeks to restore their relationship with the child.
Whilst most judgments recognise the importance of the child having a healthy relationship with both parents, there is no statutory principle that protects this. Sometimes the damage has already been done, as was the case in Q and R.
Q and R had the unfortunate effect of vindicating the mother who, it seems clear, was the engineer of her children’s wrecked relationship with their father.
Historically there had been a violent attack on the mother by the father, and it is of course possible that this motivated some of her actions later on.
Yet despite psychologists finding that the father had dealt with his anger issues and that the children would benefit from contact with him, the mother did not accept those experts’ views, even after contact had taken place successfully.
She flouted court contact orders repeatedly and influenced the children to such an extent that they no longer wished to see their father and actively feared him.
In the end the judge reluctantly made an order for indirect contact only, stating this was in the children’s best interests. She justified her decision as the better course than inflicting a further cycle of litigation on the family and because the children would have rejected anything else.
To have ordered contact between the children and their father would have caused them anxiety and distress, such was the false belief system imposed upon them by the mother.
The judge described this as a “running into the road case”; where the children expressed such strong views that they did not wish to be with their father, they might put themselves in harm’s way if made to see him against their wishes.
We can only hope this is a one off and not a precedent setting case. Certainly parents guilty of alienating should not take it condoning this behaviour – the judge was highly critical of the mother – or of establishing a new norm.
The overriding lesson is that those parents who feel they are on the receiving end of sabotaging behaviour should act early to avoid things getting to an impossible stage.
Bold and drastic measures in the early stages of a contact dispute can feel unreasonable and disproportionate, however this case demonstrates that the longer circumstances to on, the more difficult it can be to get things back on track.
For parents who can’t help but criticise their ex in front of their children, this case is a stark reminder to do better.
Both parents have one common denominator; a child or children stuck in the middle whose present and future welfare lies in the balance.
About Stacey Nevin
The author is Stacey Nevin, an associate in the Family Law team at Kingsley Napley LLP. She works on cases involving all aspects of family law including private children cases and relocation cases.