People in family court lie.  A lot. There are many hard feelings, and both parties tend to believe, deep down, that they’ve been wronged. So they often feel perfectly justified in seeking vindication by any means necessary. Skewing the truth is one of those means.

Examples are legion: there is the parent who declares, with a straight face, that the children have been living with them fifty percent of the time — even though everyone knows they only stay there on weekends. There is the wealthy person who hides money in an offshore account, then shows up at the courthouse driving a Bentley, insisting that their annual income is just above the poverty line. There is the lawyer who, heroically, switches off their fax machine to delay being served with court documents.

Falsehoods, even obvious ones, can be maddeningly hard to combat. The surest way — and some would say the only way — to do legal fact-finding is to have a trial, where evidence is put before the court, people testify on the witness stand, and the judge decides what is to be believed, and what is not. But typically it takes a long, long time — and boatloads of money — before a trial can occur. So they rarely do, and lying goes unpunished.

Bill Eddy, a respected family lawyer, mediator and therapist based in California, has written an insightful article called Lying in Family Court. He sees it as a symptom of a larger social problem.

“We have become a society of individuals,” he writes. “Personal gain is more important than community values.” In business, politics, and the movies, winning is everything. “Successful manipulation and deceit are admired.”

That’s a scary thought, and in Eddy’s eyes, lying has become an epidemic. He has seen it all — people lying about income, assets, and even creating complete fabrications of child abuse and domestic violence. One problem is that although perjury is a criminal offence that can land you in jail, it is seldom punished because prosecutors simply do not have time. Family court judges have the ability to sanction liars, but — unless they do a trial — they have no opportunity to truly determine that someone is lying. Instead, Eddy observes, the judge may simply assume both parties are lying, or just weigh their credibility. “With no specific consequence, the risks of lying are low.”

Plus, there are more and more people with personality disorders. Eddy notes that these people tend to lack empathy for others, and have a “highly adversarial world view.” They feel they are victims, and they use that feeling to justify harming others.

For example, Eddy cites Borderline Personality Disorder, where the afflicted person may “lie out of anger or even self-deception in an effort to maintain a bond with their child or spouse — or to retaliate for abandonment.” Then there is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, where people “may experience excitement and a sense of power by successfully fooling the court and dominating the other party.” Particularly frightening is the individual with Antisocial Personality Disorder, also known as a con artist. “They are skilled at breaking the rules. They fabricate detailed events and use the courts to get revenge or money. Their lack of empathy makes them constant liars — and often violent.”

Perhaps “thou shall not bear false witness” was written in stone (literally) with family court in mind. Eddy suggests several possible solutions, one of which is to opt for out-of-court dispute resolution. Possibilities include collaborative law, and mediation. The beauty of this approach, notes Eddy, is the focus is on problem-solving for the future. “Lying about the past has little relevance,” he says. “The parties know the lies, and do not tolerate them.”

Bill Rogers is a Toronto lawyer, mediator and blogger covering family law and fertility law issues, and a columnist for the Medical Post covering the law of malpractice.