Right to Equality’s Presumption of Contact Campaign

Women's Issues
November 2023

Right to Equality has undertaken a two-year campaign to end the current presumption of contact within the family court. The presumption of contact is the belief that children benefit from having contact with both of their parents unless there are very compelling reasons otherwise; the presumption was given statutory footing in 2014 under Section 1 of the Children Act 1989. Unfortunately, this means that courts often begin with the assumption that abusive parents should have contact with their children, despite this putting them at direct risk of harm; in extreme cases, residency of children has been transferred to the abusive parent1. Family courts currently operate under the presumption that maintaining a relationship with both parents is in the child's best interest, which can be harmful and dangerous2

This presumption requires compelling reasons to suspend or deny contact between a child and either parent. We want to re-emphasise that even in cases where a parent has a history of abuse, the court begins with the assumption that contact with the abusive parent should occur. This scenario places the burden on survivors to contest child contact with the abusive parent and challenge the presumption. This extends to matters of parental responsibility, wherein family law upholds the norm of shared responsibility, sometimes disregarding instances involving severe abuse offences like rape and murder. 

On a short aside, we are thrilled to see Jade’s Law coming into effect, which will protect children from parents who murdered their partners or ex-partners, and recently we called for this to be expanded to parents convicted of rape and abuse. 

‘Parental Alienation’ and the Presumption of Contact 

The concept of "parental alienation" or “parental alienation syndrome” refers to situations where a child expresses unjustified hostility or rejection towards one parent, theoretically as a result of the other parent's influence. The so-called "parental alienation syndrome" was coined in the 1980s by American psychiatrist Richard Gardner3. He proposed oppressive solutions to remedy the effects of the "syndrome" such as completely cutting contact between the child and mother4. The term “parental alienation” is often used as a tool to justify contact decisions with abusive parents5. The term "parental alienation" lacks a foundation in scientific fact and is used to cause more harm than good. It’s important to note that the term has been dismissed by scientific authorities, labelled as a pseudo-science6, and rejected as a diagnosable issue in court7. Weaponised allegations of “parental alienation” are often used to dismantle allegations of domestic abuse8 as abusers often bring allegations of alienation towards mothers when mothers allege domestic abuse9. Unfortunately, allegations of alienation often succeed, and contact is granted to the abusive parent10

A foundational report we draw on for our campaign is The Ministry of Justice's Harm Report of June 2020, which highlighted the systemic minimisation of domestic abuse allegations in family courts11. The report outlined how the “pro-contact” culture prevalent in courts obstructs the potential harm that could occur from contact with an abusive parent12. The report also recognised abusers often falsely accuse victims of alienating them from their children. Again, despite being debunked as a pseudo-concept, “parental alienation” is used to discredit protective parents, particularly mothers, perpetuating an environment that endangers survivors and their children. We are also heavily relying on Reem Alsalem’s Report to the United Nations. Her report highlights the connections between custody cases and violence against women and children13 and further addresses how “parental alienation” lacks scientific basis and is often used to discredit, dismiss, and further abuse survivors and children14

Focus on “parental alienation” diverts attention from cases where allegations of abuse are valid. Concerns about alienation can sometimes lead to a reluctance to investigate or validate domestic violence or child abuse claims. Notably, “parental alienation” is often weaponised in custody disputes15. Accusations of alienation can be used strategically to gain the upper hand in legal proceedings, silencing legitimate concerns about abuse16. In cases where those alleging domestic abuse, often mothers, raise valid concerns about a child's safety, the accusation of "parental alienation" can be used to undermine their credibility and portray them as vindictive or emotionally unstable17. "Parental alienation" also often reinforces negative gender stereotypes in how it has been used to discredit women who allege abuse or seek to protect their children from abusive fathers. This can inaccurately perpetuate the notion that mothers are more likely to engage in alienation, contributing to biased legal outcomes. 

Given these issues, we’re campaigning for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to how the courts address family dynamics, emphasising the need for thorough investigations and expert assessments in cases involving allegations of parental alienation. We suggest moving away from the term altogether and focusing on specific behaviours and situations that genuinely impact a child's welfare. The ultimate goal is to ensure that legal processes prioritise the well-being and safety of children without perpetuating harmful stereotypes or contributing to the misuse of legal concepts. Our campaign launch is in response to the evidence presented above, and we’re calling on the government to enact changes; ultimately, we aim to eradicate “parental alienation” from the courts and end the presumption of child contact with abusive parents. 

Recently, we wrote to the Family Justice Council in reply to their Draft Guidance on Responding to allegations of alienating behaviour, with our suggestions on revisions and our concerns with the continued use of “alienating behaviours”. You can read the letter here and find an excerpt about our campaign launch and goals below: 

Our two-year campaign in response to the government's inaction following the Harm Report's release launches on 15 November! Our Director, Dr. Charlotte Proudman, Advisor, Dr. Adrienne Barnett, Project Manager, Safa Haroon, and Right to Equality Manager, Allison Quinlan, are leading Right to Equality in advocating for this change in family law. We firmly believe the current presumption of child contact, especially in domestic abuse cases, is unacceptable; children and survivor parents should never have contact with abusers. Our campaign seeks to replace this flawed presumption with one that safeguards survivors and children. Our strategy is to utilise active engagement to catalyse lasting change. Right to Equality is determined to reform existing legislation that grants abusive parents the right to parental involvement. It is well established and recognised by statute that contact with perpetrators of abuse jeopardises the well-being of survivors, both adults and children. We strive to prevent further tragedies and foster a future where safety and justice are paramount. 

Read more about our campaign here! 

Written by Right to Equality Staff, Allison Quinlan and Safa Haroon 

1 Birchall, J. and Choudhry, S. (2018) “What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts, Bristol: Women’s Aid.
2 All-Party Parlimentary Group on Domestic Violence; Women’s Aid. (2015). ‘Domestic Abuse, Child Contact and the Family Courts: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence Parliamentary Briefing’.https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/APPG-Inquiry-report-domestic-a buse-child-contact-and-the-family-courts.pdf 
3 Gardner, R. A. (1998). The parental alienation syndrome. 2nd. Cresskill, New Jersey: Creative Therapeutics, 1-5. 
4 Alsalem, R. (2023). Custody, violence against women and violence against children (A/HRC/53/36). United Nations [paragraph 10]. 
https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5336-custody-violence-against-women-and -violence-against-children 
5 Barnett, A. (2014). Contact at All Costs: Domestic Violence and Children's Welfare. Child & Fam. LQ, 26, 439. 
6 Alsalem, R. (2023). Custody, violence against women and violence against children (A/HRC/53/36). United Nations. 
https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5336-custody-violence-against-women-and -violence-against-children
7[2023] EWFC 150 
8 Alsalem, R. (2023). Custody, violence against women and violence against children (A/HRC/53/36). United Nations. 
https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5336-custody-violence-against-women-and -violence-against-children 
9 Domestic Abuse Commissioner (2023). The Family Court and Domestic Abuse: Achieving Cultural Change. (p. 29) 
https://domesticabusecommissioner.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/DAC_Family-Court-Report-_2023 _Digital.pdf 
10 Barnett, A. (2020). A genealogy of hostility: parental alienation in England and Wales. Journal of social welfare and family law, 42(1), 18-29 
11 Hunter, Rosemary, Mandy Burton, and Liz Trinder. "Assessing risk of harm to children and parents in private law children cases." (2020). 
12 Holt, S., Buckley, H., & Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people: A review of the literature. Child abuse & neglect, 32(8), 797-810. 13 Alsalem, R. (2023). Custody, violence against women and violence against children (A/HRC/53/36). United Nations. 
https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/thematic-reports/ahrc5336-custody-violence-against-women-and -violence-against-children 
14 Ibid. 
15 Macdonald, G. S. (2016). Domestic violence and private family court proceedings: Promoting child welfare or promoting contact? Violence Against Women, 22(7), 832-852 
16 Barnett, A. (2017). 'Greater than the mere sum of its parts': coercive control and the question of proof. 
17 Birchall, J., & Choudhry, S. (2022). ‘I was punished for telling the truth’: how allegations of parental alienation are used to silence, sideline and disempower survivors of domestic abuse in family law proceedings. Journal of gender-based violence, 6(1), 115-131
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