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Alcohol testing in family courts

The Barrister recently ran an article about alcohol testing in family courts.  In many court cases concerning custody and access to children, the question of alcohol abuse is raised.  If one of the parents is known to abuse alcohol it can seriously affect the judgement on the case.

It is estimated that there are around one million British children who have at least one parent that is drinking heavily on a daily basis.  Heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than 7.5 units of alcohol a day, which is the equivalent of a bottle of 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) wine, approximately three-quarters of a bottle of 14% ABV wine, or three pints of ordinary strength beer.  This also represents the cut-off level for alcohol testing; nothing below this will be reported as a positive test by a lab.

Alcohol abuse is thought to be the main cause of around 350,000 cases of domestic violence every year and Childline receives around 5,700 telephone calls from children who are concerned about their parent’s alcohol consumption.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the recommended maximum alcohol consumption at 7.5 units a day, or 60 grams of alcohol.  The WHO believes that beyond this limit there is an increase in social dysfunction and poorer parenting.

Traditionally, courts request urine and blood tests for alcohol.  The urine tests will highlight if alcohol has been consumed in the last 36 hours and, therefore, provide an indication of regular drinking, although not proof.  A blood test detects damage to the liver, although it cannot be proved that alcohol is the cause of the damage.  Also, some heavy drinkers do not suffer from liver damage.

Hair tests for alcohol are relatively new.  There are two main hair tests for alcohol consumption.  Both tests are designed to detect when ethanol has been in the body.  When the body digests alcohol various resulting chemical traces can be detected in hair.  Alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde and then the body produces fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE).

FAEE is a sensitive biomarker and can be used to distinguish between heavy drinkers and lighter social drinkers.  Although most FAEE is deposited in the liver and fat reserves, some is also deposited in human hair and it is for this reason that hair tests can be an effective way to determine if an individual abuses alcohol.  Another chemical that can be detected is Ethyl glucoronide (EtG).  EtG is water-soluble so can be washed out of the hair over time and because of this it is not a reliable marker.  Hair samples need to be at least 2.5 cm long for an accurate test.

The nature of court cases is that there is often enough notice beforehand to allow an alcohol abuser to reduce their intake and disguise real problems from the courts.  Hair tests will detect longer-term alcohol abuse and show a positive result even if an individual has not drunk any alcohol for several weeks.  Hair tests are not able to determine if a person is a binge drinker or drinks excessively daily; however, a positive result will indicate an overall alcohol problem.

Testing is always a controversial topic in family courts and a judge will often wish to see detailed reports that provide a clear explanation of the results.  Interpretation and judgement is still required for any drug test, a judge cannot simply take the results as fact.  There is no doubt, however, that the tests do help to support accusations of alcohol abuse if they are made.

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