The legitimacy of Court-Appointed ‘Experts’ in parental alienation cases

Ruth Hetherington, Partner and Head of the Private Children Team at McAlister Family Law, and a Specialist in Children matters welcomes the announcement that the President of the Family Courts, Sir Andrew McFarlane will be overseeing an Appeal later this month in which issues of parental alienation and the use of experts will hopefully be reviewed.


What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation has been a hot topic for many years now. There is no legal definition of parental alienation, but the concept has evolved through cases that are heard in the Family Courts.  Cafcass, the independent body appointed by the Court, defines parental alienation as ‘when a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by one parent’.

In my experience sadly, it is becoming a very common feature in cases where parents have separated and one parent, whether directly or indirectly, displays to a child or children unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent.


What are the repercussions of parental alienation?

In such cases the relationship between parent and child can be lost altogether and the courts have been struggling to deal with such cases as quite often the alienation can be subtle, difficult to identify and can take place over several months if not years.

I have acted for both parents and children in these types of situations and I have seen first-hand the harm that children suffer as a result, which can be long term and affect children in developing healthy relationships themselves.

From my point of view trying to establish that parental alienation exists is a difficult task and as such the Courts have allowed Experts (generally Psychologists) to be appointed to assist in evaluating negative behaviours.

The use of Experts in cases of suspected parental alienation.

In the case that is to be overseen by the President of the Family Courts, Sir Andrew McFarlane, later this month, the qualifications of the Expert who was appointed, will be under scrutiny. The Expert believed parental alienation had taken place, but there is concern from the Court that this Expert may not have been appropriately qualified and was not regulated by any professional body.

In my opinion the regulation of court appointed Experts is something that needs to be addressed urgently. Therefore, the announcement of this Appeal is very much welcomed, and I sincerely hope that the concept of “parental alienation” is also addressed. Although professionals who deal with matters such as these have their own working hypothesis, there needs to be clear guidance given to both professionals, parents and anyone who cares for children about how the Court will deal with cases where a parent/carer of children behaviour is not what it should be.


What needs to change?

Parental alienation can have detrimental effects on a child’s mental health and wellbeing, right into adulthood. It is my view that parents/carers need to have their children at the forefront of their minds in everything that they say and do, to protect them from what will be a sad and upsetting experience of their parents separating.  It is sometimes hard for parents to hide their own feelings and as a result they lose sight of the fact that their children will pick up on their parent’s behaviours.

In my opinion children often get outlooked when ‘battle lines’ are drawn between the parents, and it is for these reasons that the Court will be assisted by an Expert. The Court’s paramount consideration is always the welfare of the children, and it is therefore understandable that the need for the Court to be guided by Experts is sometimes required.


Final thoughts

It is my hope that as awareness is raised around the detrimental impact parental alienation can have on the whole family, particularly on the children, we will get to a point where the use of Experts will be evaluated and scrutinised to ensure that the Expert is right for that particular family, appropriately qualified and only used where absolutely necessary.

It is crucial for any parent who has concerns over child arrangements, or feels they are victim to parental alienation, to instruct a lawyer who is highly specialised in children matters. This will ensure that that all matters can be addressed and will ensure that the child’s welfare is at the heart of any decision that a parent may take, which will ultimately inform the Court’s overall final decision for the arrangements of any child.


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