Reflections on Movember and International Men’s Day within family law
November is a seminal month for raising awareness of men’s mental health. Firstly, we have Movember – a worldwide month-long challenge that encourages thousands of men to grow moustaches in aid of men’s health charities. We also celebrate International Men’s Day, a day designated to commemorating and recognising the positive value that men, in all their diversity, bring to the world, their families and communities.
Both events are not only extremely important but successful; the Movember Foundation itself has raised £662 million for men’s health over the past 17 years.
With this said, issues that men face in the family sphere are not confined to the month of November and neither should the examination of such matters, especially in the current climate the global pandemic. Indeed, in a debate with MP Ben Bradley, MP Philip Davies warned of the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of fathers who are prevented from seeing their children. This is backed by worrying data from the Office for National Statistics which has shown that male suicide rates have hit a two decade high in England and Wales, a rate of 16.9 deaths per 100,000.
Unfortunately, it remains in question whether the courts are going far enough when it comes to contact arrangements involving fathers, in particular when a child is refusing contact for no explainable reason as a result of parental alienation.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation describes a process where a child is deliberately estranged from one parent, encouraged to see one parent as ‘bad’ and the other as ‘good,’ or even manipulated to seek revenge or control the other parent. While a gender-neutral issue, we find that this can often be perpetuated against the father when the mother is the primary carer of the child.
There is now specific guidance available to CAFCASS officers, however, regrettably, there is no definition set out in in law and so the court can still struggle to deal with cases involving issues of parental alienation. The court’s paramount consideration is the welfare of the child, and not the rights of the alienated parent (and often absent father).
In Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) Lord Justice Peter Jackson summarised the dilemma being that ‘the more distant the relationship with the unfavoured parent becomes, the more limited its powers become’, noting that this can put exceptional demands on the court. While it has been recognised that the child’s wishes and feelings should be assessed in the light of the child’s age and understanding, the older the child becomes the more difficult it becomes to balance these competing considerations.
What can be done?
It is likely that without a statutory legal definition, the courts are going to continue to struggle to identify cases of parental alienation and there is going to be continued opportunity for disadvantage when organising contact arrangements with the parent which is not the primary carer. As parental alienation a form of psychological abuse it might be argued that the absence of a legal definition of parental alienation in the Domestic Abuse Bill (currently at it’s second reading in the House of Lords) is a missed opportunity.
Secondly, safeguards need to be put in place to identify cases of parental alienation early enough to prevent the damage being caused in the first instance. This is not a new; judges have long recognised that early intervention is essential in cases where parental alienation is suspected. Funding must be provided to support adequate prevention programs. This would include educating parents that fighting adult issues through children proceedings can cause long lasting damage to the child or children involved, and encouraging parental conflict to be resolved through avenues out of court, such as mediation.
Parental alienation cases can leave you feeling tired, frustrated, and lost. Unfortunately, we frequently encounter such cases. As each case is different there is not necessary a ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ course of action, however, it is imperative that you seek advice early to prevent any further harm being done. Should you wish to have an initial consultation, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
If you require support or guidance on the issues highlighted in this post, or generally on divorce and the issues faced, please contact one of our experienced family law specialists on firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is intended to be a brief note for clients and other interested parties. The information is believed to be correct at the date of publication but should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional advice.