- At the outset, it must be acknowledged that, whether a family is united or divided, it is not uncommon for there to be difficulties in a parent-child relationship that cannot fairly be laid at the door of the other parent. Children have their own feelings and needs and where their parents are polarised they are bound to feel the effects. Situations of this kind, where the concerned parent is being no more than properly supportive, must obviously be distinguished from those where an emotionally abusive process is taking place. For that reason, the value of early fact-finding has repeatedly been emphasised.
- As to alienation, we do not intend to add to the debate about labels. We agree with Sir Andrew McFarlane (see  Fam Law 988) that where behaviour is abusive, protective action must be considered whether or not the behaviour arises from a syndrome or diagnosed condition. It is nevertheless necessary to identify in broad terms what we are speaking about. For working purposes, the CAFCASS definition of alienation is sufficient:
- Where a child’s relationship with one parent is not working for no apparent good reason, signs of alienation may be found on the part of the other parent. These may include portraying the other parent in an unduly negative light to the child, suggesting that the other parent does not love the child, providing unnecessary reassurance to the child about time with the other parent, contacting the child excessively when with the other parent, and making unfounded allegations or insinuations, particularly of sexual abuse.
- Where a process of alienation is found to exist, there is a spectrum of severity and the remedy will depend upon an assessment of all aspects of the child’s welfare, and not merely those that concern the relationship that may be under threat. The court’s first inclination will be to reason with parents and seek to persuade them to take the right course for their child’s sake, and it will only make orders when it is better than not to do so. Once orders are required, the court’s powers include those provided by sections 11A to 11O of the Children Act 1989, and extend to consideration of a more fundamental revision of the arrangements for the child. We agree that whilst a change in the child’s main home is a highly significant alteration in that child’s circumstances, such a change is not regarded as “a last resort”: Re L (A Child)  EWHC 867 (Fam)at  to  per Sir Andrew McFarlane P. The judge must consider all the circumstances and choose the best welfare solution.
- Cases at the upper end of the spectrum of alienation place exceptional demands on the court. It will recognise that the more distant the relationship with the unfavoured parent becomes, the more limited its powers become. It must take a medium to long term view and not accord excessive weight to short-term problems: Re O (Contact: Imposition of Conditions)  2 FLR 124 per Sir Thomas Bingham MR at 129. It must, in short, take action when and where it can do so to the child’s advantage. As McFarlane LJ said in Re A (Intractable Contact Dispute: Human Rights Violations)  EWCA Civ 1104;  1 FLR 1185 at 53:
- Unhappily, reported decisions in this area tend to take the form of a post mortem examination of a lost parental relationship. Re A (above): 12 years of proceedings, 82 court orders, 7 judges, 10 CAFCASS officers, no contact. Re D (Intractable Contact Dispute: Publicity)  EWHC 727 (Fam);  1 FLR 1226 (Munby J): 5 years of proceedings, 43 hearings, 16 judges, no contact. Re A (Children) (Parental Alienation)  EWFC B56 (HHJ Wildblood QC): 8 years of proceedings, 36 hearings, 10 professionals, no contact despite an attempted change of residence. In some cases (e.g. Re A) a formal finding of a breach of the state’s procedural obligation under Article 8 was made. Another recent example is Pisica v Moldova (Application No 23641/17) 29 October 2019, where a mother was deprived of contact despite five years of proceedings during which she had obtained orders for the children to live with her. Finding a breach of Article 8, the ECtHR stated:
- In summary, in a situation of parental alienation the obligation on the court is to respond with exceptional diligence and take whatever effective measures are available. The situation calls for judicial resolve because the line of least resistance is likely to be less stressful for the child and for the court in the short term. But it does not represent a solution to the problem. Inaction will probably reinforce the position of the stronger party at the expense of the weaker party and the bar will be raised for the next attempt at intervention. Above all, the obligation on the court is to keep the child’s medium to long term welfare at the forefront of its mind and wherever possible to uphold the child and parent’s right to respect for family life before it is breached. In making its overall welfare decision the court must therefore be alert to early signs of alienation. What will amount to effective action will be a matter of judgement, but it is emphatically not necessary to wait for serious, worse still irreparable, harm to be done before appropriate action is taken. It is easier to conclude that decisive action was needed after it has become too late to take it.