“Whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact … not a diagnosis”

A judgment by Sir Andrew MacFarlane, President of the Family Division in England and Wales, includes a strong statement on how parental alienation should be considered in family court cases (copied below).

The judgment concerned an appeal against an order refusing a mother permission to seek reconsideration of findings of fact by an earlier judge.  The mother’s barristers argued that judge should not have relied on evidence given by an ‘expert witness’ who had concluded that the children had been alienated against their father by their mother over a number of years.  The judge ordered that the children move to live with the father with the mother getting only limited contact.

Sir Andrew’s judgment had been awaited by lawyers and other legal commentators expecting a ruling about whether the expert was qualified to give expert evidence as she was not a member of any of the regulatory bodies. In a careful judgment Sir Andrew rejected the appeal on a number of grounds citing other witness evidence including that of the parents. He said the earlier judge’s decision was sound regardless of the evidence of the disputed testimony.  The arrangements for the children continue. They are reported to be thriving.

Sir Andrew included this highly significant note about Parental Alienation:

103. Before leaving this part of the appeal, one particular paragraph in the ACP [Association of Clinical Psychologists] skeleton argument deserves to be widely understood and, I would strongly urge, accepted:
‘Much like an allegation of domestic abuse; the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that “parental alienation” is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, “alienating behaviours”. It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.’
It is not the purpose of this judgment to go further into the topic of alienation. Most Family judges have, for some time, regarded the label of ‘parental alienation’, and the suggestion that there may be a diagnosable syndrome of that name, as being unhelpful. What is important, as with domestic abuse, is the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents. In this regard, the identification of ‘alienating behaviour’ should be the court’s focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label ‘parental alienation’ can be applied.