Confronting the Challenge of the High-Conflict Personality in Family Court

Santa Clara University’s School of Law published an article in Family Law Quarterly that examines a subset of cases in family law involving individuals whose propensity to seek, rather than avoid, conflict is met by an adversarial system that seems to facilitate ongoing conflict instead of working toward a resolution.

Study Highlights:

  • A Santa Clara University study “Confronting the Challenge of the High-Conflict Personality in Family Court” published in Family Law Quarterly illustrates the challenges of working with a High-Conflict Personality and their effect on the family court system.

  • Study authors Esther Rosenfeld, Michelle Oberman, Jordan Bernard and Erika Lee interviewed 13 family law experts, family law judges and a custody evaluator, who recounted their experiences with High-Conflict Personalities and the toll they take on the family court system.

  • The Mayo Clinic defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”

  • With only about 10% of family law disputes going to trial, cases with high-conflict and/or NPD personalities take up a majority of time within the family court system, last anywhere from two to five years, well beyond the average case, which lasts eight to 10 months.

  • An individual with NPD is drawn towards the conflict of family court. The result is voluminous filings that take up a disproportionate time on the docket, sizable overtime costs and excessive fees to all involved parties.

  • With time and experience, attorneys and judges are able to spot recurring patterns and red flags in cases involving NPD participants and are better able to manage them.

Changes to the court and legal systems also will help. They could include:

  • Requiring attorneys to attend mandatory continuing legal education classes on high-conflict personalities and NPD. Learning how to recognize the disorder and devising effective ways of disengaging and de-escalating disputes will aid in resolving these cases.

  • Restructuring the judicial rotation system in many of California’s 58 counties. This could involved extending a judge’s rotation in family court and/or having a judge complete a family-law case even if he or she rotates out of the system, decreasing the chances of relitigating old issues and introducing new ones.