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Child law  |  Domestic Abuse  |  Family law

Are the family courts forcing children into contact with abusive fathers?

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On the 4th of September the BBC aired a shocking documentary telling the story of mothers fleeing the UK with their children, claiming that the Family Courts were forcing their children into contact with their abusive fathers.Father carrying crying child

The documentary coincided with research published by the University of Manchester highlighting serious health problems suffered by mothers who accuse their partners of domestic abuse. The mothers claimed that their health problems were caused by biased family court proceedings.

The study, involving 45 mothers and their 77 children, found that dozens of the children had been forced into contact with abusive fathers, most of whom had spuriously claimed that the mothers had sought to alienate the children against them.

The BBC investigation also found that five mothers had died after being accused of parental alienation by abusive fathers, some taking their own lives, and one having a heart attack.

But is the Family Court really biased against mothers, in the way that it orders contact after preferring fathers’ claims of parental alienation over mothers’ claims of domestic abuse?

Are Family Courts biased against mothers?

The first thing to say is that the Family Court does of course get things wrong from time to time. No system is perfect, and judges are fallible human beings who can make wrong judgement calls.

But the system is not complacent. It is always trying to improve. It has, for example, quite recently taken steps to improve how it deals with cases involving domestic abuse allegations, and new proposed guidance for courts is in the pipeline on how to respond to allegations of alienating behaviour (more of which in a moment).

And the research has to be taken in context. Whilst any mistake by the Family Court can obviously have extremely serious, and sometimes tragic, consequences, it must be remembered that every year the Family Courts in England and Wales deal with over 50,000 private law children cases between parents, involving some 80,000 children.

Family Court judges often have a very difficult task, but in the vast majority of those cases they do not make decisions that are obviously wrong, even if one of the parties may believe that to be so.

And the law that those judges have to apply contains no bias – it is written in terms that apply equally to both parents.

So why might the courts be accused of bias?

In a press release published by the University of Manchester lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno says that the study’s findings can be explained by lack of training for judges and court professionals around coercive control and domestic abuse, and a culture of misogyny and woman and victim-blaming which is prevalent in society.

These points may have some validity, but the first is being address by improved training for judges, and the second, if true, is obviously a much wider problem that cannot be blamed upon the Family Courts.

The Family Courts’ approach to parental alienation

The BBC says that researchers studying the Family Court say they are concerned about the increasing number of claims of parental alienation, which Dr Dalgarno describes as “a pseudoscientific belief system designed to control women and deny abuse”.

But the family justice system is already making it clear that parental alienation is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but rather 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.

As the President of the Family Division has said: “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.”

And as mentioned above, the Family Justice Council (‘FJC’), which monitors the family justice system, has drafted guidance to assist the Family Court on responding to allegations of alienating behaviour. The guidance, which is presently out for consultation, focuses on dealing with evidence and finding facts.

Of course, no improvements can guarantee that mistakes are no longer made, but the FJC expresses the hope that the guidance “will contribute to increased understanding, good practice, and ultimately good welfare outcomes for children.”

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