Children in high-conflict family breakdown cases experience “emotional abuse”, High Court judge tells conference

Alternative dispute resolution processes should form part of family law resolution

The experiences children go through during high-conflict family-breakdown proceedings amount in many cases to “emotional abuse of the children, nearly as bad as physical abuse”, a High Court judge told a conference in Dublin yesterday.

Mr Justice Michael White said he was "hugely concerned" about the "severe" experiences of children in high conflict cases who may become "the battleground of the ongoing dispute. There is no easy solution to that problem; these cases pose huge challenges to us all."

The conference, organised by children's charity Barnardos, examined prioritising children in family breakdown proceedings.

Mr Justice White said in quite a lot of high-conflict cases one party has a “narcissistic, self-referenced personality”. And in his experience they are men more than women.


“It is very difficult to get through to people who don’t see the other side of the argument, who reference life to themselves completely and don’t see the damage that is being caused.”

This led to a “concentration on parental rights to the detriment of the interests of the child” who was “not put at the centre of the situation”.

Overprotective mothers were also a problem. “They feel they know what’s best for the child and court orders are then undermined because they don’t feel that the orders . . . are in the interests of the child.”

In high-conflict cases, which he said were a minority of family breakdown proceedings, flexible custody orders did not work and the court had to provide clear solutions.

The judge also said alternative dispute resolution processes, such as mediation, “should and must” form part of family law resolution but the system in place to date had not really worked. Certificates prepared by solicitors stating parties had been advised about their rights to attend dispute resolution were “ filled out as a matter of course”, he said.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist