While many adults drink alcohol responsibly, unfortunately there is a significant percentage of the adult population in England that misuse alcohol. Government statistics for 2020 show that over half a million adults in England were admitted to hospital, primarily due to excessive alcohol consumption.
When misuse of alcohol is a factor in family breakdown, it can be a particular concern when there are children and arrangements need to be agreed for residence and contact. It is not uncommon that someone with an alcohol problem denies any problem exists, especially if they fear they may not get to see their children. Meanwhile, the other parent will be concerned and fret over the safety of their children in their former partner’s care.
‘The issue of concern for any court looking at arrangements for children is not so much if a parent misuses alcohol, but rather what risk that may present to the children in their care,’ explains Robert Bellhouse, a Solicitor in the family law team with Ware & Kay in York & Wetherby. ‘If your former partner has issues with alcohol misuse, then ideally they should address those issues by getting professional help. The courts will support this and recognise they are acting appropriately and in the best interest of their children in addressing their problems. Being open to obtaining help and looking at what safeguards need to be in place are key considerations.’
When alcohol misuse is denied, it also tends to increase the acrimony between parents. Often the concerned parent wants the other parent to have a good relationship with their child but is distressed about the potential risks.
Commonly the biggest risk arises from a parent driving under the influence of alcohol with the child. However, if a parent misuses alcohol while caring for a child, there can be several other negative impacts on children including potential neglect and normalisation of excessive alcohol use. On many occasions, seeing a parent under the influence of alcohol leaves a child feeling frightened.
It is important that any concern raised is genuine. A false accusation, made in the hope of preventing one parent seeing their children, will usually backfire. It could even result in a court finding the accuser as ‘implacably hostile’ which can have an impact on who the children live with.
If your former partner does not accept that they have a problem, then you can request that they undergo alcohol testing. You can try and agree this privately between yourselves, or you can ask a court to order an alcohol test as part of an application for the court to look at your children’s living arrangements. The court cannot force your former partner to undergo testing. However, if they refuse the court may think they have something to hide, and the judge can draw a negative inference from their refusal which may impact their case and options to see their children.
The testing for alcohol misuse can be carried out in several ways:
Although usually more expensive, it is also possible to obtain nail clipping analysis or hair strand testing:
If significant concerns are raised about a parent’s alcohol consumption, then the court may order a CAFCASS report, or another expert report such as a physiologist. CAFCASS represent children’s interests and independently advise the court about what is safe and what is in a child’s best interests.
If alcohol is an issue of concern, then the judge may decide to allow that parent to see their children but put certain safeguards in place. These safeguards could include, amongst other things:
If you are concerned that alcohol misuse is a problem for your former partner, and that this may impact on their relationship with their children, or you have been accused or have issues with alcohol misuse yourself, then it is important that legal advice is obtained.