‘Parental alienation’ is a phrase that has slipped into common usage in recent years. Allegations of parental alienation are a common feature in disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, and the subject is commonly discussed in the media, and elsewhere.

A recent BBC documentary, for example, told of dozens of children who have been ‘forced’ by the courts into contact with abusive fathers, after the fathers had made parental alienation allegations against the mothers.

The documentary referred to recent research by the University of Manchester which found that mothers had suffered serious health problems after being accused of parental alienation.

But the concept of parental alienation is controversial. It is surrounded by misconceptions, both about what it is, and how it should be dealt with by the courts.

What is parental alienation?

Despite being commonly used in court proceedings, ‘parental alienation’ is not a legal term, and there is no fixed definition of ‘parental alienation’.

However, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), which looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings, use the term ‘alienating behaviours’, which it defines as: “circumstances where there is an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of one parent (or carer) that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with the other parent.”

In practice allegations by one parent of parental alienation can range from any behaviour by the other parent that may hinder their contact with the child, to a determined course of action by the other parent designed to turn the child against them.

What parental alienation is not

Over the years ‘parental alienation’ has acquired a pseudo-scientific status, often being referred to as ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’, or ‘PAS’, as if it can somehow be ‘diagnosed’ in the ‘alienating’ parent, and perhaps also ‘cured’ by some form of treatment.

But that misconception has been thoroughly rejected by the courts.

In Re C, a recent case heard by the President of the Family Division, the Association of Clinical Psychologists (‘ACP-UK’), who were a party in the case, stated in their evidence:

“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.”

The President stated that this paragraph deserved to be widely understood, and strongly urged that it be accepted. He went on:

“…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.”

How the courts deal with allegations of parental alienation

The above quotations indicate how the court should approach allegations of parental alienation: whether it has occurred is a question of fact, for the court to decide, on the basis of the evidence before it.

This has also confirmed in another recent case, Re GB, where the court directed that a psychologist be appointed to undertake a psychological assessment of both the parents and the children, with instructions to provide an opinion about parental alienation allegations by the father against the mother.

The mother appealed against the direction.

Allowing the appeal the judge of the appeal court stated:

“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. It is the Court’s function to make factual determinations necessary to inform welfare decisions for the child, not to delegate that role to an expert. The identification of alienating behaviours should be the Court’s focus, where it is necessary and demanded by the individual circumstances of the case for the Court to make such factual determinations leading to final welfare decisions for the child.”

The direction appointing the psychologist was therefore set aside.

In short, parental alienation is not a ‘syndrome’ that can be diagnosed by an expert, but rather it is for the court to determine whether a parent has behaved in such a way as to alienate, or potentially alienate, the child against the other parent and make orders accordingly.