Sarah’s partner liked to drink. When he was drunk, he used to beat her. He installed CCTV at home to watch her and their children; forbade them from closing the bathroom door; and threatened to reveal footage of Sarah in the bedroom. After she left him, he put trackers in her car.
In the family courts, Sarah’s partner sought contact with the children, accusing Sarah (not her real name) of ‘parental alienation’ – that she had turned the children against him. Eventually the courts denied him contact; but by then, Sarah had killed herself. The judge expressed ‘huge regret’ that proceedings had taken so long.
Then there was Sheila. She suffered from coercive and controlling behaviour by her partner for years. In the family court, without any expert evidence, the judge warned Sheila that she believed she had engaged in parental alienation, and that the court took it very seriously. Sheila, again not her real name, was traumatised by the court hearing, which went in the father’s favour. She took her own life a year later.
These harrowing stories stem from a BBC investigation which found that five mothers have died after the family courts allowed fathers accused of abuse to apply for contact with their children (tinyurl.com/43jvd23f). Meanwhile a separate study by the University of Manchester, also reported by the BBC, found 75 children had been forced into contact with fathers previously reported for abuse – among them convicted paedophiles.
The BBC’s report highlights an issue that family lawyers have been screaming about for years now. It is far too easy for abusers to pull the wool over the eyes of the family court by claiming that the other parent has ‘alienated’ the child against them. As the Gazette reported back in 2021 (tinyurl.com/5fwwvssv), parental alienation is being alleged far too often, and has effectively become a weapon for abusers to wield against former partners. The mere threat of it can stop a victim from bringing a case before the court, in case they end up losing their children.
The Family Justice Council has issued new draft guidance Responding to allegations of alienating behaviour (tinyurl.com/md9w777m), which will now be consulted on. This stresses that there must be evidence of what acts the parent in question has carried out to manipulate the child against the other parent. It also spells out that the mere fact that the child has rejected the other parent is not evidence of itself.
Whether this guidance will have enough of an impact to make a real difference to victims of domestic abuse, and to restore their trust in the family courts, remains to be seen. Even if family judges can reset their approach, abuse victims will still face the stress of long delays and last-minute cancellations in a crumbling family court system that is barely fit for purpose.
Meanwhile, it is hard to escape the feeling that the number of people quietly suffering in controlling relationships, some of which will ultimately turn abusive, is only going to grow. Controlling tendencies that once might never have amounted to much can now be fuelled and fed by technology, which will prove far too tempting for some.
The now ubiquitous video doorbells can record every coming and going through the front door (and why not install one at the back as well?). Voice-controlled, smart-speaker ‘personal assistants’ can lend the abuser a permanent ear to listen in on the home from wherever they happen to be. And of course, location apps on mobile phones – with location-sharing between couples fast becoming a societal norm, no doubt soon to evolve into a societal expectation – are the ultimate enablers for a controlling spouse.
All technologies that we blithely use and accept. But for some, they can swiftly turn the world into a prison.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Gazette sister magazine Litigation Funding, the essential guide to finance and costs. For subscription details, tel: 020 8049 3890, or click here