Parental alienation and the voices of children in family proceedings

22 July 2011

In a relatively small portion of all separation and divorce cases, children reject a parent. How and why does this happen? How do the courts respond to these cases, which are characterised by high levels of conflict between parents, and what should they do? What can we learn from the experience of other jurisdictions such as Canada and the US?

These were some of the questions addressed in a seminar hosted by the Foundation on 13 July and led by Professor Nicholas Bala from Queen’s University in Canada.

Young child on London Eye

The seminar started with a discussion of the controversial concept of ‘parental alienation.’ While rejecting the view that it is a ‘syndrome,’ Professor Bala recognizes the value of identifying cases where the hostile attitude of one parent results in a child having negative views of the other that are a reflection not of the child’s own experience, and resulting in unjustified rejection of that parent. This approach requires courts and professionals to distinguish cases where a child is justifiably rejecting a parent, for example due to abuse or neglect, from cases of alienation. 

Professor Bala reviewed evidence about the prevalence of alienating behaviour, looking at both allegations and court findings on the extent to which one parent (usually the resident parent, usually the mother) may turn children against the other parent. He highlighted the short and long term ill effects of alienation on children, and examined the Canadian, American and English jurisprudence in this area, including consideration of contempt proceedings and variation in residency.

Professor Bala went on to consider how courts can better respond to high conflict cases and contact disputes. Some of his recommendations, such as the importance of judicial continuity and the need to drastically reduce delay, are relevant to current proposals in the Family Justice Review. He also advocated more judicial interviews with children, and better collaboration between courts and mental health professionals. He concluded that more serious consideration in appropriate cases of varying residence orders might benefit some children. 

Hosting the seminar was part of our work in family law, which is a long- standing interest of the Foundation. We are particularly interested in how insights from other jurisdictions and disciplines can help inform policy or practice in the UK.

Professor Bala’s presentation is available to download from the link below:

Parental alienation and the voices of children in family proceedings, Professor Nicholas Bala, 13 July 2011 (PDF).