Divorce – how narcissists are tackled by the Family Courts in England and Dubai

26 March 2018

The narcissist is a challenge for both Family Court Judges and the object of the narcissist’s regime of control and coercion.  Faced with an arch deceiver, Judges, however experienced they are in identifying dishonesty and manipulation, regularly fall victim to a personality hell bent on winning; but not in Dubai it seems. 

A 2017 report in Gulf News confirmed: “A wife won her legal battle and had her marriage annulled after she convinced Dubai’s highest court that her husband is narcissistic and psychologically incapable of being a good husband”.  The wife’s lawyer explained that after a number of year of marriage and two children, the husband had become “troublesome and unbearable to live with… my client realised that her husband had a mental disorder that made him a difficult person to live with”.  Apparently the husband had also “been subject to a clinical test that proved his disease was incurable”.  The case which was refused by the Primary and the Appeal Court was eventually successful at the Dubai Cassation Court.

You have to search hard to find reports of a family Court in England engaging with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  This is partly because very few cases are actually officially reported and possibly because of the system itself.  Almost weekly, I speak with people who have received a shrug or a raised eyebrow from both the Courts and/or their lawyers at the suggestion that a husband/wife is a narcissist.  Lawyers are the gatekeepers when it comes to taking cases to court and if the subject of NPD makes them anxious or dismissive, a client will be hard pressed to spend a significant amount of legal fees taking on the challenge of a court case where they have to persuade their own team and the judge.  Logic therefore might explain why Judges are less likely to tackle or have experience of the disorder and why the public are unable to read their decisions; they don’t get the chance.  Judges can only judge the cases that are brought before them and if conservative, ill-informed or timid lawyers discourage their clients from raising the existence of a personality disorder, which is recognised universally as real, damaging and most likely incurable, then they unwittingly enter the narcissist’s world.

There is some positive news, however.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal in England and Wales considered the case of Re P (a child) [2015] EWCA in which the father was diagnosed by a forensic physiatrist as suffering from an “Histrionic Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder”.  The report summarised the father’s behaviour as follows:-

  • He reacts to criticism (real or perceived) with feelings of rage;
  • He is interpersonally exploitive taking advantage of others to achieve his own ends;
  • He has a grandiose sense of self importance, e.g. exaggerating his achievement or talents;
  • He expects to be noticed as “special” even without appropriate achievements;
  • The corollary of this is his denegation of others without relevant cause;
  • He believes his problems are unique and can only be understood by other special people;
  • He is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love;
  • He has a sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectation of especially favourable treatment; and
  • He has a lack of empathy, inability to recognise and experience how others feel.

The result was a finding by an earlier court that the child P is likely to “suffer significant emotional harm arising from the adverse impact of the father’s mental health difficulties”.  In part directly but also because of the impact of those difficulties on the relationship between the parents.

In addition, the Judge also accepted the forensic psychologist’s view that, “As a result of his personality disorder the father was unable to identify P’s needs as distinct from his own which combined with the father being unable to have his opinion challenged and his need to control those around him” rendered P vulnerable to harm.

In Re F (children, contact, name, parental responsibility) [2014] EWFC 42, the judge found that making orders at “the most extreme end of the spectrum of Children Act Orders” were both proportionate and necessary when severely restricting the father’s role in his children’s lives.  An extract from the judgement explains:

“The father has recently taken to referring to the mother as a drug-addicted alcoholic surrogate who has suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.  This is the terminology of his blog and it is the terminology in which he has communicated with the welfare agencies.  One example is the father’s provision to all 723 providers of nursery education in the mother’s county of his insulting analysis of the mother’s position…when questioned about this terminology, the father asserts that it is true but this is clearly contradicted by other evidence available to me in the case.  He then says that the mother has insulted him by quoting his psychological assessment of narcissism, so, if she is insulting him, he is going to insult her.  Finally, he says that he did not approve of the mother’s approach to the choice of nursery so, by spreading information about the mother to all local nursery providers, he was attempting to stop her acting contrary to his wishes”.

In October 2017, the Senior Judge of the Family Courts in England (the President of the Family Division) gave directions to all Judges deciding cases concerning child arrangements where there are allegations of domestic abuse and harm.

Practice Direction 12J – Child Arrangements and Contact Borders; Domestic Abuse and Harm 

The Direction could be read as a “Blueprint” for tackling parents with NPD.

Domestic Abuse was defined as:

“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between people over 16 who are or have been intimate partners or family members”.

Coercive Behaviour was clarified to be:

"An act or a pattern or acts of assaults, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten the victim”.

Controlling Behaviour goes further:

“An act or a pattern of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependant by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources… depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour”.

The Direction sets out clear rules of engagement for Judges dealing with cases where such behaviour arises including at paragraph 33(a) “whether it would be assisted by any social work, psychiatric, physiologic or other assessment… of any party”. 

This leaves us with real hope that the English Courts (and lawyers), now armed with clear definitions, will engage more readily with the damage caused by the narcissist in a family setting.

Further information                                                                                              

If you have any questions, please contact a member of our family team.

See also our previous blogs on the related topics below and our pages on divorce involving personality disorders and addiction; and domestic abuse and harassment for further information.

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