On 6 July 2020, the UK’s Domestic Abuse Bill was passed by the House of Commons. This Bill will now have to be read by the House of Lords and voted through before it receives Royal Assent and becomes law.
The Bill seeks to provide a statutory definition of domestic abuse. While this raises the question of whether Singapore should adopt similar legislation, in this article, we seek to explore whether parental alienation can or should be classified as a form of domestic abuse.
Firstly, one might ask what parental alienation is. This refers to when a child becomes estranged from one parent because of manipulation by the other parent. This estrangement can have a lasting effect on not just the child, but the parent being alienated as well.
It is easy to see how a parent who realises that their child is beginning to resent them for no apparent or legitimate reason would be greatly distressed. It would not be farfetched to say that the emotional hurt inflicted is the end-product of the other parent’s behind-the-scenes manipulation.
However, what would be classifying parental alienation as a form of domestic abuse do in the context of Singapore law? It is argued that any classification would have no discernible effect. Instead, any attempt to categorise parental alienation would actually create issues.
As explained in another one of our other articles, there are three main types of alienators. In the case of a naïve alienator, the manipulation of the child is very often done subconsciously or unintentionally. In order to fall under the definition of domestic abuse, parental alienation would also have to be given a definition. Any attempt to do this would be dangerous as each instance of alienation is unique – after all, no two families interact the same.
As such, attempting to fix a catch-all formula for when parental alienation is present would be ill-advised. Doing so might lead to situations where one parent might be wrongly classified as having alienated the other when all that was made was a careless remark. On the other hand, a fixed definition could also omit to catch a parent who had intended and in fact alienated a child from the other.
Case law has noted that the term alienation applies to a cluster of psychological responses in a child towards a parent with whom he or she once had a loving relationship. Alienation may not result from any deliberate campaign of denigration by one parent in respect of the other. The research data supports multi-factorial causes for alienation following parental separation, involving contributions from both parents and vulnerabilities within the child.
Given that there is a myriad of factors that lead to the alienation of a child from a parent, each case has to be assessed on its own merits – this is clearly a job for the judge. Since it has been established that no two scenarios would be the same and that the Court would have to consider each case individually, what need is there for a statutory definition?
Even if there were to be a more comprehensive definition that distinguishes between the numerous variants of alienation, it is unlikely to encompass the various fringe scenarios that might fall between the boundaries of the definition. This may have the result of creating more litigious situations with parties alleging that parental alienation has occurred, with the other side being forced to defend appropriately.
This would only serve to add to the acrimony between parties and potentially triangulate the child in the proceedings. Perhaps the best way forward for the parent being alienated would be to focus on the best interests of the child. This is because the parties’ child would likely be the most disorientated party from the breakdown of marital relations.
Accordingly, in order to best ensure that child is least affected by parties’ divorce proceedings, the focus should be on ensuring that parties put their differences aside to co-parent as effectively and as amicably as possible.