Family Court Files: Psychologist’s evidence used to ‘ramp up’ allegations of parental alienation

A mother has claimed that evidence submitted to the family court by an unregulated psychologist was used by her abusive ex-partner to bolster his harassment of her.

The father, described by the judge as “hostile”, had accused the mother of “parental alienation” – where one parent is said to have manipulated a child into rejecting the other parent.

The controversial concept was repeatedly referenced in a report submitted by Melanie Gill, a psychologist who does not belong to a professional regulator. Unregulated psychologists are entitled to give expert evidence in the family courts.

The mother, who previously tried to have Gill’s evidence removed from her case, said in an interview: “[The father] had already accused me of alienation but the allegations ramped up after Gill’s report – and he would send me emails using her terminology.”

The court found the father’s allegation of parental alienation to be untrue and the judge noted the father had read Gill’s report “in a partial way”.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) is able to report on the case after making an application for a transparency order to the family court in Bristol.

The mother’s barrister, Justin Ageros, described how the father continued to raise allegations of alienation in “strident and aggressive terms” and used the claim as a reason to withhold child maintenance payments.

Mrs Justice Judd subsequently found that the father had sent the mother accusatory messages which had been “coercive” and “punitive in tone”. The judge also found the withholding of maintenance to be controlling.

In one email, the father wrote: “Any alleged arrears have been addressed from my end as a proximate consequence of your deliberate parental alienation.

“Since a renowned expert has explained that you weaponise my contributions and continue to alienate the children, I am awaiting advice from my legal counsel.”

The expert in question, Gill, is not registered with the regulator the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), and was last year at the centre of a high-profile appeal that considered the issue of the court’s use of unregulated psychologists.

In a landmark judgment, the president of the family division said that the generic label of psychologist was not protected – in other words, anyone can call themselves a psychologist – and that unregulated experts could be appointed to court at a judge’s discretion.

He said detail in a CV may assist the court with the choice of one expert over another, but “it is the kitemark of HCPC registration which should resolve the question of qualification”.

His ruling led the mother in the Bristol case to withdraw her application to have Gill’s evidence removed. But she continued to challenge Gill’s qualifications, methodology and recommendations.

She told TBIJ: “From my research I knew that other mothers accused of parental alienation had had their children removed from their care and I was terrified of losing mine – and about the environment they could find themselves in.”

In a published judgment, Mrs Justice Judd made clear she did not adopt Gill’s recommendations, noting the psychologist’s assessment had a narrow focus instead of being based on the “evidence as a whole”.

Background to the case

The parents have been embroiled in the family court for many years. The father, who works abroad but returns to the UK for contact with his children, started proceedings in 2016 and the mother made allegations of domestic abuse.

In 2017, a judge found the father called the mother a “monster”, an “uberbitch” and “crazy”, and said unpleasant things about her in front of the children, who are of secondary school age.

Judge Rutherford said the mother had found the father to be “harassing, controlling and coercive and indeed frightening”. In a judgment, he wrote that whatever the father’s intentions, his behaviour had “undermined the mother to the detriment of her care for the children”.

He rejected the father’s claim that the mother had deliberately prevented his contact with the children and issued a year-long non-molestation order – the equivalent of a restraining order.

The judge said the father should have supervised contact moving to unsupervised, but the arrangement broke down and the father didn’t see his children for nearly three years.

He issued a new application to the court in 2020 and supervised contact resumed. Gill was brought on to the case six months later.

The father claimed the mother had obstructed his contact with the children and alleged she had alienated them by sharing her negative views of him, causing them emotional harm.

The mother said the father continued to be emotionally abusive, intimidating and threatening towards her. She also claimed that his behaviour had made the children, who wanted the supervision of the contact to continue, anxious and upset.

She asked the court to reject Gill’s analysis – that her unconscious behaviour was impacting the children’s relationship with their father – and said he should undertake work to address his behaviour before having unsupervised contact with them.

Post-traumatic stress

Gill became involved in the case after being put forward by the National Youth Advocacy Service [NYAS] – which provided a guardian to represent the children in the proceedings.

As part of her assessment, she interviewed the parents and filmed them remotely interacting with the children. Her report, which Judd later described as “couched in highly technical language and not at all easy for a lay person to follow” was filed in February 2022.

Gill claimed the mother was projecting traumatic fear from her childhood on to her children. She also said one of the children had become “alienated” from the father due to the mother’s unconscious behaviour as well as their negative experiences of their father.

She concluded there could be negative effects on the children if their relationship with their father was not repaired.

On behalf of the mother, Ageros said one of the “fundamental defects” of Gill’s approach was a complete failure to reflect Rutherford’s adverse findings in relation to the father.

At a hearing in December, he said the psychologist commented on the fact that there were findings but made “no reference” to how those findings might have impacted the mother or children.

Gill responded: “I do… I talk about how in the past she was abused.”

Ageros also challenged how Gill came to diagnose post-traumatic stress. He said: “You indicate that it is from trauma from my client’s childhood – you don’t relate it to the court’s findings that she had suffered domestic abuse at the hands of the father.”

But Gill told the court: “Yes, I do, I specifically say how [the father] treated her exacerbated existing trauma.”

‘Frankly astonishing’

Ageros claimed Gill was not qualified to answer the questions required of her by the court when she was appointed to the case, which included assessing whether the children have a history or presentation of a mental illness or psychiatric disorder.

The psychologist said she was trained to recognise “diagnostic categories”, but added: “I would not diagnose a condition.”

“Anything which looked like it could fulfil the diagnostic category then I would have asked a colleague, a psychiatrist, to look over my data,” Gill said.

Asked why she failed to ask the children about their wishes and feelings, Gill argued that they are too young to be “neurologically capable of giving an answer”.

“They don’t have the understanding and they certainly don’t have the neurological architecture to … judge what exactly is going on,” she told the court.

“That is the job of the [children’s] guardian, it’s not my job,” she added. “However, what these assessments do is give you the children’s wishes and feelings in a more oblique way, but I don’t have to ask them directly.”

Asked by Ageros if she would consider this “frankly astonishing view” to be mainstream, Gill responded: “It absolutely is for people trained in these cases.” She added: “When you ask for wishes and feelings you present them [the children] with a very difficult choice and it stresses them out and affects their brain.”

The barrister described Gill’s report as a “manifesto” supporting the approach she had used to assess the family known as “attachment science” and denigrating mainstream clinical psychology. He said one of the mother’s key concerns was the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress on the basis of discussions about her childhood.

Gill defended her methodology arguing that post-traumatic stress is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder – the latter being a diagnosis she is not qualified to make.

She said her approach involved an interview that could get to the truth of what happened in the past. “It shows the damage that has been done to people and whatever has happened to them in their childhood and then in later life,” she said.

Ageros told her: “I would suggest that is an extraordinary assertion for you to make, that you are not qualified to offer such a diagnosis, and it is frankly terrifying that on the basis of that you go on to suggest my client should have a specific form of therapy.”

During her evidence, Gill insisted she was not denigrating mainstream psychology but that her approach was the “only model validated for use in court with children”.

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‘Not a condition that can be diagnosed’

Earlier the court heard that, in response to the landmark appeal on unregulated experts, Gill had written on LinkedIn that she had been “exonerated against all the accusations” against her and that “PA” [parental alienation] had been “vindicated”.

Ageros asked how this was the case and highlighted the fact that Sir Andrew McFarlane, the head of family justice in England and Wales, had in the judgment endorsed the view that parental alienation is not a condition that can be diagnosed by a psychologist but a series of behaviours to be determined by the court.

He said it was implicit from Gill’s answers that she did not agree with McFarlane and did not believe the court could identify PA without the use of “an expert such as yourself”.

Gill told the court: “I do agree with [McFarlane] that it should be the court that is deciding but it is up to us experts to help provide the evidence and use the right assessments to bring out the things that constitute alienation.”

The father’s barrister, Emily James, said that the father did not travel to the UK between March 2018 and January 2021 as the mother “did not make the children available” for contact.

James noted Gill was agreed as a suitable expert between the parties, albeit that the mother was acting in person at the time. She said the psychologist had been practising as an expert witness for many years and her instruction based on her expertise had been endorsed in “many cases by many courts”.

With respect to Gill’s report, she wrote: “Ms Gill is clear that the mother is in large part responsible for the children’s … reluctance to spend time with the father as she is consciously or unconsciously communicating her own negative views of him to [them].”

James said Gill and NYAS found no “obviously proportionate reason for the children to be so entrenched in their views against” their father. She added that both professionals had expressed concerns about “the language and behaviours of the children which align so closely to the mother’s”.

Gill, who has two degrees in psychology and describes herself as a specialist psychologist, said she has been instructed in family court proceedings “probably 150 to 200 times”. “I have been challenged and questioned on my qualifications in every single private law case I have ever undertaken, and I have never been criticised,” she said.


Mrs Justice Judd found all the father’s allegations against the mother to be untrue. Giving judgment, she wrote: “I reject the proposition that she has obstructed contact, failed to promote the father to the children or alienated them in any way.”

Instead, she found it was the father’s behaviour, causing the children to feel upset, confused and pressured that led to the problems in his relationship with them. When he did not pressure the children, contact goes well she said, adding: “He is affectionate and fun, and the children love him.”

With respect to his treatment of the mother, Judd said: “My finding is that he has sent her repeated hostile and accusatory emails and has been hostile when she tried to rearrange the times of calls.

“He has accused her of alienating the children from him. I would describe this as intimidating and bullying behaviour. It is also clear from the messages that the father has withheld child maintenance from the mother because of his frustration about contact.”

The judge said the father had taken Gill’s report as firm support for his belief that the mother was alienating the children from him and that he had read it “in a partial way”.

She refers to an email, which she notes is one of many similar messages, in which the father says the mother has perpetuated an “unbearable saga” with “crystal clear parental alienation – a conclusion reached by an independent expert”.

Judd ordered a regime of “light touch” supervised contact for the father and attendance at a co-parenting programme for both parents. Final arrangements for the children would be decided at a later date.

‘So much fear’

The mother said Judd’s judgment brought her enormous relief. “I had so much fear about possible findings of parental alienation,” she told TBIJ. “Gill said the alienation was unconscious, but the father took her report and really ramped things up.”

Representing herself at the time Gill was recommended to the court and during her assessment had increased her vulnerability, the mother said.

“I had no idea that someone could be put forward to the court as an expert without belonging to a regulatory body. It hadn’t dawned on me that there wouldn’t be a process through which I could raise any concerns.”

During her evidence, Gill told the court that the father was wrong in his interpretation of her report.

When approached for a comment, her legal representative said their client was well-qualified to perform the role of expert witness, has had years of specialist training and is subject to court rules that govern the role of experts.

They said their client was not responsible for the parties’ conduct in litigation or how they seek to present her evidence and, in any event, the judge in the case was alive to this issue and commented on it in her judgment.

They said it was their client’s firm view that, in general, children benefit from some degree of contact with both their parents and that their client has no agenda to promote the removal of children from their mothers to live with unfit fathers and this has not been the outcome in any of the cases in which she has given evidence.

The mother’s fears are understandable, they said, but insisted it was not because of any fault on the part of their client.

Reporter: Hannah Summers
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editors: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editors: Alex Hess and Emily Goddard
Fact checker: Somesh Jha
Illustration: Chanelle Nibbelink

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