Landmark Judgment sees the term 'gaslighting' used for the first time in the Family Courts.

Gaslighting is a word used to describe the manipulation of another person to cause them to question their reality.

It is a term we all know and often hear being used colloquially, however this word does not have a legal definition, nor has it been used or recognised by Judges before. However, that has now changed thanks to the Judgment of Mr Justice Cobb handed down in the High Court Family Division on 20 January 2022.

This case involved a child aged 4 years and 11 months whose parents had a volatile relationship which led them to be unable to agree on the child arrangements. Both the mother and father had made allegations of domestic abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour against the other. As a result, a fact-finding hearing was listed spanning five days. In his judgment Mr Justice Cobb considered the allegations of domestic abuse as a wide pattern of behaviour, instead of ‘free-standing’ incidents. He found the mother had been emotionally and physically abused by the father and that she had also been verbally abusive towards him. However, the most important part of the Judge’s analysis came at paragraph 66 in which the Judge held that Counsel for the mother use of the term “gaslighting” to describe the father’s conduct was ‘apposite; the father's conduct represented a form of insidious abuse designed to cause the mother to question her own mental well-being, indeed her sanity.’

With the Judge considering the use of the term gaslighting appropriate in the circumstances of the case and proving a brief definition of the word, it is hoped that this will now provide some legal recognition to the term gaslighting and that Judges in future family law proceedings will understand and recognise this form of emotional abuse, attaching more weight to it when looking at allegations of domestic abuse put to them. It also means that victims of domestic abuse will be able to use this term to explain their experience of domestic abuse to a Judge, in family court proceedings.

Written by: Megan Porter (Paralegal)

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