P v M & Ors: EWFC 2023 254 Sheds Light on Complex Issues in Child Arrangement Cases: Domestic Abuse, Parental Alienation, and Expert Evidence

Citation: [2023] EWFC 254
Judgment on

Introduction

The case P v M & Ors: EWFC 2023 254 considers the nuanced and sensitive issues surrounding child arrangement orders, allegations of domestic abuse, and the role of expert evidence in family proceedings. The case is indicative of the challenges family courts face when allegations of parental alienation and obstructive behavior towards contact with a child are claimed. The family court, presided over by Mrs Justice Judd, applies fundamental legal principles to balance the welfare of the children, the conduct of both parents, the involvement of experts, and the paramountcy principle while dealing with applications for child arrangements orders.

Key Facts

The underlying facts concern a father’s application for child arrangement orders regarding his two secondary-school-aged children after the parents separated and the father relocated abroad. A series of factual disputes between the parents emerged, with allegations of domestic abuse, parental alienation, and the welfare of the children at the forefront. The mother alleged ongoing emotional abuse and coercive behavior by the father, both towards her and indirectly affecting the children. In contrast, the father accused the mother of obstructive behavior and alienating the children from him.

Mrs Justice Judd had to analyze a substantive amount of evidence ranging from extensive witness statements, contact notes, video recordings, and expert reports to navigate the factual disputes and arrive at her legal conclusions.

Several legal principals are elucidated and applied during the proceedings, with welfare considerations being paramount. Mrs Justice Judd reinforces the statutory welfare checklist under s1(1) of the Children Act 1989, emphasizing that the children’s welfare is the court’s primary consideration. In addition, s1(2A) of the same act presumes that parental involvement will further the welfare of the child, unless proven otherwise.

The case weaves in the considerations under Practice Direction 12J (PD12J), defining domestic abuse and setting out the family court’s approach to it in child arrangement cases. The judgment indicates that domestic abuse encompasses a variety of behaviors and is not restricted to physical violence but includes coercive, controlling, and threatening behavior.

Mrs Justice Judd points to Re H-N and Others (children)(domestic abuse: findings of fact hearings) [2021] EWCA Civ 448, where the interpretation of emotional and psychological abuse calls for consideration of intent and harmful impact. The principles for determining factual issues are also applied, insisting that the standard of proof is on the balance of probability and that findings of fact must be evidence-based.

The judgment briefly touches upon Re C (Parental Alienation: Instruction of Expert) [2023] EWHC 345 (Fam) concerning the consideration of expert evidence and qualifications, although the focus is on the family court’s discretion in using such evidence.

Outcomes

In dissecting the evidence, Mrs Justice Judd rejects the father’s allegations of alienation made against the mother, instead finding the father responsible for emotionally harmful behavior towards the mother and children. This included intimidating, accusatory messaging, and withholding child maintenance linked to contact disputes. These behaviors were characterized as coercive and economically abusive within the meaning of PD12J.

A significant outcome is the recommendation and subsequent endorsement of a Parenting Apart Programme (PAP), designed to address specific family dynamics rather than a domestic abuse perpetrator program (DAPP). The court also mandates continued ‘light touch’ supervision of contact between the father and children to alleviate pressure and address their anxieties.

The court further decided upon the responsibilities for covering the costs associated with expert evidence and contact supervision, tasking the father as the primary cost-bearer due to his greater responsibility for the contact issues.

Conclusion

P v M & Ors: EWFC 2023 254 underscores the complexities inherent in resolving family law disputes where accusations of domestic abuse and parental alienation color applications for child arrangements orders. The case reinforces the paramountcy principle of the child’s welfare, demonstrates the multifaceted nature of domestic abuse, and highlights the court’s dissection of expert evidence. Through a careful and evidenced-based approach, Mrs Justice Judd’s judgment offers a detailed roadmap of legal reasoning, combining a nuanced appreciation of the facts with a steadfast application of principles to reach an outcome that, above all, prioritizes the wellbeing of the children involved.

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