The court decides on parental alienation, not an expert

Allegations of parental alienation are commonly raised in disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, and the issue is regularly discussed, by academics and others.

This has led to parental alienation being referred to in some quarters as a ‘syndrome’, as if it requires some sort of quasi-medical diagnosis.

And this in turn has led to parents alleging alienation seeking that diagnosis from experts appointed by the courts.

But whilst it may be appropriate in certain cases to seek the views of an expert, for example to undertake a psychological assessment of the parents, it is for the court rather than the expert to determine whether parental alienation has occurred, as a recent case has confirmed.

In the case the father was alleging that the mother had sought to alienate the children against him, and the Children’s Guardian sought the permission of the court to appoint a psychologist to undertake a psychological assessment of both the parents and the children.

The court granted the application.

The mother appealed, in part on the grounds that the instructions to the expert made it clear that they were being asked to provide an opinion about parental alienation, and that this was contrary to recent guidance given by the President of the Family Division.

The President had recently made clear that parental alienation was not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but was rather a question of fact for the court to determine.

The appeal court agreed with the mother. The judge 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.”

Accordingly, the mother’s appeal was allowed, and the order permitting expert evidence was set aside.

You can read the full judgment here.

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