Victims and Prisoners Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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I will briefly respond to the noble Baroness. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, for her constructive engagement and for everything she has said. I will respond on that specific amendment. I understand where she is coming from.

Perhaps I did not put it very well, but what I was trying to articulate before is that I fully accept, as a fact of life, that marital breakdown will, sadly, sometimes —maybe even often—create a rancour that can be passed on to the children. The children can be caught in the middle, and they may feel that they are pulled in two directions, or perhaps in one direction more than the other; it does not matter. That is a fact of life. It is a matter of evidence and fact that is not, in my view, a matter for medical experts, but a matter for the judge to deal with and cope with—I think the noble Baroness is slightly sympathetic to that point.

In many cases, it will be about encouraging the parties, whatever their pain, to reflect on their actions in the interests of the child. However, it does not require the kinds of sums of money and the sorts of diagnoses that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was talking about. It has to be said again that we are often talking about some very wealthy men; it need not be, but it is usually men. These are some very wealthy individuals who pay some very expensive, slightly dodgy—and if the noble Lord, Lord Russell, can use the “B” word, I can use “dodgy”—experts, whose expertise I would query, but whose greed I would not.

I can always reflect on drafting; that is what Committee is about. Here, when we talk about being

“considered … as a potential perpetrator of parental alienation”—

as opposed to simply saying bad things to their kids about the other party—we are talking about this syndrome. That is what I was trying to reflect. As for the fact that they should not be diagnosed or considered for diagnosis for 90 days for this syndrome, frankly, if they are a victim of abuse, it is almost inevitable that they are going to have some rancour or anger towards the other partner, unless they are a saint. Judges are well capable of considering that and working out what to do on the facts.

It is really about attempting to separate facts from expert evidence. These are hard facts that judges can deal with, with other court reports. This so-called “alienation expertise”, that some of us believe has become a bit of a racket, is being weaponised against victims. If there is something in the clarity of the drafting that can be improved, that is the great benefit of Committee, but I am trying to respond with the intention behind my amendment. I am very grateful for the opportunity to do that, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox.

Lord Meston Portrait Lord Meston (CB)
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My Lords, having started to grow old in the family courts, I feel that I ought to address some of these amendments, some of which I would like to support and some of which I would like to qualify.

I begin by clearing up one particular point, which was possibly a slip by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. There is no question now of unrepresented litigants being allowed to cross-examine mothers, particularly in contested cases involving domestic abuse allegations. It simply is not tolerated. No judge would tolerate it and we all know how to deal with it when it arises.

Turning to the individual amendments, as quickly as I can, and dealing first with Amendment 82 relating to parental alienation, I am worried by the proposal to restrict the family court’s approach to cases involving allegations of so-called parental alienation by what would amount to a statutory exclusion of evidence. There are two main grounds for concern that I suggest. First, the amendment would restrict the scope of what the court might want or need to consider. Secondly, and ironically, it might tend to elevate the significance of the concept of parental alienation. Allegations of alienation, whether justified or not, have become part of the weaponry of high-conflict parental disputes. The concept of parental alienation is controversial, and, indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, the idea that there is a syndrome is largely discredited. That in itself may be one reason why it should not find its way, in any way, into a statute.

I was not going to refer to what was recently said by the President of the Family Division, but in view of what I have heard, I will say that in an important recent decision, in 2023, the President of the Family Division said:

“Family judges have, for some time, regarded the label of ‘parental alienation’, and the suggestion that there may be a diagnosable syndrome of that name, as being unhelpful. What is important, as with domestic abuse, is the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents. In this regard, the identification of ‘alienating behaviour’ should be the court's focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label ‘parental alienation’ can be applied”.

It is often said that the family court has to take a holistic view of the child’s welfare. It has to look not only at what happened in the past but at what might be possible in the future. Cases of this type have a particular complexity. The signs of parental alienation are, frankly, not difficult to identify. In my experience, Cafcass is well equipped to do that. The causes are more difficult to understand. Cases in which one parent tries to turn the child against the other parent, consciously or unconsciously seeking to punish the other parent, present differing degrees of alienation and varying motivations.

These cases are not easy to resolve. They require an understanding of the family dynamics, and an assessment of the impact of what has happened and of the harm to the child concerned. The evidential picture is not always clear-cut. Indeed, there are some cases in which there may quite well have been some level of domestic abuse by one parent, but the alleged parental alienation is wholly unrelated to it; or the persistent hostility revealed is quite out of proportion to the type of abuse that has been experienced. The Children Act and the practice direction governing cases in which abuse has been established fundamentally require the court’s assessment of harm, or risk of harm, from all sources. Those are the vital considerations.

Amendment 82 would insert the label “parental alienation” into primary legislation. It could artificially restrict—and, indeed, distort—the proper analysis of parental behaviour and attitudes in their context, and could restrict the careful handling that such cases sometimes require. I doubt that would be helpful. Indeed, it could well be unhelpful.

I turn now to Amendment 84 and others that wish to introduce the use of Section 91(14) orders. For the uninitiated, Section 91(14) orders restrict further applications to the court without leave of the court. It is a valuable power. Although Section 91(14) orders are not strictly speaking barring orders, as sometimes described, they provide a necessary protective filter to ensure that inappropriate applications will not be allowed to proceed.

In reality, a Section 91(14) order may or may not be necessary in any individual case of this type—that is to say, a case involving the application of Jade’s law. However, in these extreme cases, if there is any possibility of an inappropriate application by the convicted offender, such an order would be justified. Indeed, under current guidance there does not always have to be a risk of repeated applications, but rather the risk of any application without merit.

In the situation covered by the Bill, when, unfortunately, one parent has killed the other and the victim’s family or foster carers have stepped in to care for the child or children, they should be shielded from the prospect and distress of further court proceedings. However, in that context, and slightly tangentially, I will just qualify one observation made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, when she referred to parental rights. One of the great improvements brought about by the Children Act 1989 was to remove the concept of parental rights. What is being restricted here is the exercise of parental responsibility.

My only reservation about the Section 91(14) amendments relates to the question of who should be responsible for making such orders and when they should be made. From experience, I emphasise that the orders require careful, case-specific drafting. It is therefore always necessary, when making such an order, to specify its duration, which is not dealt with by Section 91 itself. That may require consideration of the age and circumstances of the child and, in these situations, the position of the surviving adults. I rather assume that those proposing these amendments would wish the order usually to run until the youngest child reaches 18 years of age, but I suggest that should be made clear, either in the statute or in the order.

However, I add that these are not orders of which most Crown Courts will have had any experience. At the sentencing stage in the Crown Court, there might not be the material on which to craft an appropriate order. Accordingly, while I do not in any way wish to oppose the principle of the amendments relating to the use of Section 91(14), I suggest that under the existing scheme of the Bill it would be better to leave any mandatory imposition of a Section 91 order to the required review hearing in the family court, for which the Bill provides in new Section 10B.

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I hope it is of some reassurance to the noble Baroness that there are, nevertheless, good reasons for not making a Section 91(14) order alongside the prohibited steps order, but that there are well-used existing powers to put one in place when the circumstances are appropriate.
Lord Meston Portrait Lord Meston (CB)
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My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt, and I understand the drift of what the noble Earl is saying, but all I was suggesting was that, although I fully understand the desirability in many cases of having Section 91(14) orders—and suggest that in these extreme cases they should be the norm—it should not be done in the Crown Court but should be part of the mandatory requirements at the review hearing that will follow shortly afterwards in the family court. It should, at the very least, be something in the statute that the reviewing family court should be required to consider.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am very grateful to the noble Lord for those comments and will ensure that they are fed back to my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy, and the department as a whole.