Late last year, I attended the 5th Westminster Dialogue organised by Only Mums & Dads as a member of their family law panel. The conference presented a panel of experienced professionals working within the field and was made up of a professional of sociology, a solicitor, the Assistant Director of CAFCASS, a psychologist, the CEO of the National Association of Contact Centres as well as the President of the Family Division, Sir James Mumby.
The conference style event was set up to consider “The System’s Failure to Protect Children from Harm”. Essentially, the focus was on how to make the unreasonable withdrawal/refusal of contact a recognised form of harm to children within the court process. Or, in other words, what do we do about parental alienation ?
The issues discussed come up to some extent in almost every child dispute case that I have ever dealt with. Parental alienation seems to be the hot new topic and CAFCASS are launching a new trial initiative next year called the “High Conflict Pathway” to deal specifically with cases involving issues of parental alienation. Indeed, it has hit the headlines as, in response to the CAFCASS initiative, the Guardian reported “ Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner ’. Of course, nothing is ever as straightforward as a paper headline would like to make it and in fact, this and the concept of alienation being actual harm has been around for years. However, to put a spotlight on issues of alienation and to make people aware of the consequences if it is unjustified can only be a good thing. Whilst reforms have slowly been implemented to the Children Act 1989, the President agreed at the conference that not enough has been achieved in the last 13 years to truly tackle the deficiencies that lead to children suffering harm during the court process.
It was suggested that the real problem is that the court system is simply not adequate; it cannot deal with a children act application quickly enough to cut to the core of parental alienation and stop it before the harm is done. In public law proceedings (that is, cases brought by social services against parents) the child is given a voice, they are a party to the proceedings and are represented by an appointed Guardian. In private law, we hear little from the child save for perhaps an hour or so interview with CAFCASS. Where there is no independent person for the child, it would seem that this exacerbates feuding parents, encouraging them to blame the other and putting the child squarely in the middle. Typically, this also means neither party can focus clearly on how to resolve issues quickly for the sake of the child.
What everyone at the conference agreed is the children have to come first. Their best interests are the focus and all professionals involved should be working to that ethos. It was suggested that a more holistic approach to cases, involving whichever professionals may be necessary to include the child’s school or therapeutic support, might be the way forward. It was further suggested that broadening the definition of harm to include an “unjustified withholding of contact” would also assist and focus the minds of, not only of the professionals, but the parents involved in disputes.
In addition, it was proposed that the courts should implement a triage type hearing before a District Judge with a CAFCASS Officer present within 7 days of the application being filed because, if delay is making the issue worse, then early intervention must be the key to swift resolution.
Of course, all proposals are easier said than done. We are dealing with an underfunded overworked court system which is simply firefighting due to the limitations rather than actively managing matters. Yet there is hope; dialogues such as this attended by the people who can make a change get people talking. We will not know how the new CAFCASS initiative will act in practice until next year but it is hoped that change can happen and parental alienation can be properly addressed at the very first instance before the harm is done.
For information about the organisations involved in organising this event and for more support in children disputes, please go to www.familylawpanel.org , www.onlymums.org and www.onlydads.org . Emma Taylor is a member of the Association of Lawyers for Children and Resolution and is focused on achieving results where the child’s best interests are at the forefront of all parties’ minds. If you need help with your children dispute, please do not hesitate to contact Emma on 01273 956270 or email@example.com .
GoodLaw Solicitors have offices in Brighton, Hove and Farnham.