How mental health and family law proceedings intersect

For a long time, mental health concerns didn’t receive the attention they deserve in legal matters (and in society as a whole). But the tide is turning. People are finally recognising the huge impact mental health can have on legal cases and vice versa, especially in something as uniquely personal as family law.

We at Sousa Law have been helping families navigate the twists and turns of family law for years, so we understand firsthand how mental health and family law proceedings can intersect. Below, we’ll explore how mental health can affect family law outcomes and how the legal process itself can impact mental health.

How can mental health issues affect family law outcomes?

Mental health conditions can impair an adult’s ability to make sound decisions regarding child custody or financial matters. The court might order a mental capacity assessment by a qualified professional, like a doctor or psychiatrist, to find out if the individual understands the situation and can make choices that reflect their best interests.

If the assessment finds that the person lacks capacity, the court can appoint a litigation friend to act as their voice in family court. This friend makes sure the person’s interests are protected and their wishes are heard. In some cases, the court might also appoint a deputy to handle specific decisions, like where the person lives or how their money is managed. Even if someone doesn’t have full capacity, the court will consider the individual’s wishes and feelings as much as possible.

Here are two situations where mental health may play a large factor in decision making:

Child custody arrangements

A child’s safety always comes first in custody battles, so a parent’s mental health might be considered if there’s a worry they can’t properly care for the child.

Evidence of mental health issues may be presented to argue for limitations on parenting time or involvement in decision-making. The court will investigate these claims to determine their validity and impact on child well-being. Severe, untreated mental illness might be a concern, but manageable conditions with therapy and medication may not be.

If the child has a mental health issue, the court will focus on how each parent can support them. This might involve:

  • How well each parent understands the diagnosis
  • Whether they’re committed to treatment plans and support systems
  • The parent’s own mental health and if it affects their parenting

If one parent can’t provide a safe and healthy environment (due to the child’s mental health or their own), the other parent might be awarded sole custody. In other cases, the court might set up shared custody with supervised visits or limited communication. If both parents are deemed capable regardless of mental health concerns, the court might aim for a joint custody plan where both parents are actively involved in raising the child.

Domestic abuse cases

Mental health conditions like anxiety and PTSD can make court proceedings difficult for domestic abuse survivors. They may be allowed to have a support person, such as a counsellor or advocate, present during the proceedings to provide emotional support and help with accessing resources. Courts may also refer survivors to counselling and mental health services to help them cope with the trauma of abuse.

While not an excuse for abuse, some mental health conditions may increase the risk of violent behaviour. The court will consider evidence of the abuser’s mental health alongside other factors like the severity and pattern of abuse, threats made, and the survivor’s safety when coming to a decision. In some cases, the court might order mental health treatment for the abuser alongside a restraining order. This can potentially reduce future violence.

How can family law proceedings affect mental health?

There’s also the toll the legal process itself can take on mental health. Family law matters like divorce or child custody disputes are inherently stressful, and uncertainty surrounding the future coupled with the grief of a dissolving family unit can lead to significant stress, anxiety, and despair. If someone is already struggling with mental health concerns, the adversarial nature of the legal system can exacerbate their condition even more.

Children are particularly vulnerable during family law proceedings. Witnessing parental conflict in court can increase feelings of anxiety and depression, and the uncertainty of living arrangements alongside feelings of divided loyalty can also cause significant emotional distress.

Depending on the situation, it might be better to try a different approach before going to court. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods, like mediation and collaborative practice, offer a less confrontational way to reach agreements outside of court, minimising the emotional toll on everyone involved.

Trust Sousa Law for compassionate family law advice

Mental health is a complex issue that can significantly impact family law cases. If you’re facing a situation where mental capacity is a concern, Sousa Law can provide the expert guidance you need.

Our team have years of experience supporting families across Southampton through family law matters, including divorce and separation, child arrangements, business asset division, and more. We understand the emotional challenges of family law matters and offer warm and supportive guidance throughout the process, taking into account your personal situation to get you and your family the best possible outcome.

Get the support you deserve. Book a consultation with Sousa Law online or call us on 02380 713060 today.

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