Generally, the family courts are concerned to ensure, where it is in the best interests of children, that children have the chance to maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents. It is important to understand in what circumstances a court may be willing to make orders limiting or terminating the time that children spend with a parent where that parent has significant personality dysfunction.
In Shan & Prasad  FamCAFC 12 (1 February 2018), the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia upheld on appeal the decision of the primary judge who had made orders that effectively gave the mother absolute control of the children and have no time with the father. The primary judge found in effect that the particular issues relating to the father’s personality and how that effected the ability of the mother to parent the children justified this outcome. On appeal, the Full Court found no reason to disrupt those findings.
The orders of the primary judge in that case:
- provided for the mother to have sole parental responsibility for the children;
- provided for the children to live with the mother and to have no time or communication with the father except for the exchange of two letters each year;
- gave the mother liberty to relocate with the children within Australia, or overseas, without having to consult the father.
Whilst children were spending time with the father, the father had removed them from Australia to India without the prior knowledge or consent of the mother. In order to do this the father had forged the mother’s signature on one child’s passport application. After the husband and the children had flown out of Australia, the father had called the mother to tell her that he and the children were flying to India and that he had purchased an airline ticket in order for her to join them the following day.
Opinion of the single expert witness
The single expert witness’s took the view that the father had “significant personality dysfunction, with prominent anti-social and narcissistic personality traits”. Whilst he did not diagnose the husband as having a personality disorder, the possibility was not ruled out.
In relation to the significance of these traits, the single expert witness said:
“ Reflecting his antisocial personality style, the [father] has demonstrated in his family relations a pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, in particular of the [mother] and the children. In terms of antisocial personality traits, the [father] can behave unlawfully, be deceitful, irritable and aggressive, and irresponsible. The [father] lacks remorse, being indifferent to or rationalising having hurt or mistreated another.
Reflecting his narcissistic personality style, the [father] has demonstrated in his family relations a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. In terms of narcissistic personality traits, the [father] demonstrates a grandiose sense of self-importance, claims a “special” status in particular as a medical practitioner, requires excessive admiration and attention, has a sense of entitlement, is interpersonally exploitative, and lacks empathy, being unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”
The single expert witness also considered that “the relationship between the parents was characterised by a pattern of family violence perpetrated by the [father] against the [mother]”.
The single expert witness raised the following concerns for the children if they spent time with the father:
“ The indirect effect on the children of the [father]’s perpetuation of a pattern of family violence towards the [mother], such that she is at risk of emotional and physical harm, which can then disrupt her parenting capacity. This is particularly relevant considering the [father’s] long history of undermining maternal parental capacity, and his more recent history of deceitfully taking away the children to India, and deceitfully seeking to present the [mother] to the courts as mentally and physically incompetent, and abusive.”
The risks that the single expert witness had identified were “summarised by senior counsel for the husband as follows:
. That the [father]’s narcissistic and anti-social traits could lead him to significantly intrude on the [mother]’s wellbeing, erode her security and undermine her capacity possibly having a secondary effect on the children;
- There was a specific risk of the [father] taking the children away – ieby abducting them;
- There was a risk that the children would witness paternal disrespectful and aggressive behaviour towards the [mother] or any new partner or in other settings;
- The risk of relative neglect of the children’s emotional needs which were subject to the countervailing proposition that paternal narcissism makes him a better than average parent;
- That if the [father] had substantial time then when things got a bit mundane or boring or if he were distracted or if the children were anti-dad, there was a significant risk of the children experiencing paternal neglect or abuse; and
- The final one being a modelling of anti-social behaviour, that is, that if [the single expert witness] was accurate that the [father] can behave in anti-social ways that as the children get older they are at less risk of things like abduction, neglect or abuse but at a greater risk of modelling and the [father] is less useful as an adult guide for their transition into adulthood.”
The father argued that the risk of the first two matters listed above was either inconsequential or non-existent.
The Full Court rejected that there was no ongoing risk of abduction. The primary judge had referred to the considerable planning undertaken by the father in order to abduct the children from Australia. The primary judge had found that it was “hard to avoid a finding that the [father’s] actions in absconding with the children were calculated, based on deception and a willingness to deceive, and were quite indifferent to the needs of the children and their mother”.
However, the primary judge did not find that the risk of abduction was substantial. The primary judge did not however accept the father’s contention that there was no evidence of the father undermining the mother’s role in the children’s lives. The primary judge referred to the father’s removal of the children to India and the significant steps he had taken in order to avoid having them returned to the mother.
The primary judge was also very concerned by the father’s action in trying to use historical information concerning the mother’s mental health to try to establish that she self harmed and was a risk to the children.
The primary judge and the single expert witness had also been extremely concerned “by the extent of the husband’s actions to cover up his mistreatment of the wife by making false allegations about her, including going so far as to create a false email where she admitted being mentally ill and wanting to harm the children.”
The single expert witness gave evidence about the effect of the husband’s undermining on the [mother]. The expert witness confirmed that the [mother] told him that she had become accustomed to an “oppressive judgemental blaming pattern of paternal behaviour towards her, and had allowed this behaviour to undermine her sense of self as a person and a parent. The [father] lacked insight into the impact of his critical behaviour.”
The single expert witness considered that secondary to the paternal undermining of the mother, she “became insecure and worried about her capacity as a parent, and this lack of confidence became to some extent a “self-fulfilling prophecy” [my words], causing some disruption to her confidence in actively, sensitively and consistently engaging with and raising the children.”
The Full Court concluded that the evidence supported the above six risks posed by the father if he spent time with the children.
The orders made by the primary judge that the children spend no time with the father were upheld by the Full Court with one variation which we discuss in our next blog so that the orders were not expressed to apply until each of the children reached 18 years of age.
For more information as to how the family courts may address narcissistic behaviour and its impact on children, read our further blog on this subject.
Contact our friendly family lawyers Brisbane (Brisbane CBD office) and family lawyers Brisbane Northside (Grange office) if you have concerns for your children’s well being in the care of your former partner or if you need any assistance to resolve your family law matter. We offer free initial 15 minute phone consultations and have the experience to assist you to resolve your family law matter.