Recommendations to make divorce easier and less traumatic
Proposed changes to Family Justice System include giving judges more powers to reduce delays and disputes
A move is under way to make divorce less traumatic by helping couples understand and navigate concerns like finance, housing and custody at all steps of the process.
In its recommendations, the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System has focused on simplifying and speeding up the legal process by reducing disputes and conflicts, while ensuring the best interests of the children involved are catered for.
To this end, Family Court judges will get enhanced powers to be more pro-active in facilitating less acrimony in divorce proceedings.
The committee, which has submitted its recommendations to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Ministry of Law, also hopes to encourage more people to go for counselling or mediation before considering divorce.
It proposed developing a consolidated online platform that offers services such as online counselling that could enable couples to contemplate the impact of divorce on their children, and be referred to appropriate support services offline.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, who was at yesterday's media briefing, said "having a listening ear" could help couples "look at the dispute from a new perspective".
But he added: "It is not compulsory. We don't want to foist it on couples."
While noting that the total number of divorce cases and annulments had fallen slightly from 7,578 in 2017 to 7,344 last year, Mr Lee said couples who got married more recently have higher divorce rates.
For example, 17 per cent of those who married in 2005 had divorced by the 10th year, up from 12.2 per cent for those who wed in 1995.
When divorce is inevitable, the committee has looked at ways to resolve disputes outside the court system, which tends to be adversarial.
For cases that end up in court, the committee proposed that the Family Justice Rules be simplified to ensure processes can be more timely and affordable.
The recommendations include making it easier for an applicant to start divorce proceedings by introducing a single claim form to begin the process, simplifying of documents and digitalising them for easier understanding and access to the layman.
As applicants can fill up the claim form themselves, certain proceedings can be done without a lawyer to reduce cost.
The simpler process can also help reduce delays.
In acrimonious proceedings, it is not uncommon for multiple applications to be filed as the parties engage in disputes over maintenance or custody.
The enhanced powers will allow judges to weed out unnecessary applications that drag out proceedings.
Judges could also be empowered to make substantive orders if, for example, they are in the best interests of the child, subject to the usual processes that ensure the affected party is given a chance to be heard.
It was proposed that the court can conduct hearings based on filed papers without the presence of the parties or their lawyers and to restrict cross-examination in certain situations, such as domestic abuse, to protect victims from being traumatised again.
In cases when one parent blocks the former spouse from seeing their child, the committee proposed to enhance the enforcement regime for child access orders.
The committee suggested a certification and accreditation scheme for family law practitioners to ensure that they are equipped not only in the law but also in specialist competencies.
The committee also suggested additional training for family judges.
MSF also announced yesterday that it had appointed two new divorce support specialist agencies - Thrive Parenting! under AMKFSC Community Services and Healing Hearts @ Fei Yue - to better support families undergoing divorce. The two new agencies will add to the four existing centres.
The public can give feedback on the recommendations online via the Government's e-consultation Reach portal from today until Nov 1.
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Recommendations could lead to challenges for legal service
Among the recommendations to enhance the Family Justice System was a new certification for family lawyers and judges to equip them with skills in non-law aspects of family conflict and disputes.
Law Society of Singapore president Gregory Vijayendran said the changes would require investments in time and money.
But they will help members of the profession become better equipped to deal with such cases holistically.
He told The New Paper last night: "Today's society calls for it. When you look at the divorce statistics and the impact of divorce on families and children, there needs to be expertise and skills for lawyers to be able to handle such cases without adding to the trauma and tension among the parties.
"I don't see it as a barrier of entry for family lawyers but as a way to build up necessary skill sets."
On another recommendation to enhance the powers of Family Court judges, he said this will help the courts to better deal with key issues.
He said: "It can help reduce situations where lawyers are pressured by a client who is driven by emotion to file applications that can escalate anger."
Mr Vijayendran said there is a possibility that simplifying of court processes may result in some people opting not to hire a lawyer. But he believes the majority will still choose to be represented by a lawyer.
In cases where a party does not have a lawyer, he said it is important to ensure easy access to legal information, and the rules and processes are clear and user-friendly.
Mr Leonard Lee, executive director of the Community Justice Centre, told TNP that while simplifying the process will allow easier access to justice and benefit couples, there might be some drawbacks for the legal sector.
He pointed out that execution is key to ensuring that the simplified filing processes are clear and intuitive.
If the filing processes are done haphazardly by applicants, it will create additional challenges for lawyers and judges later on in the process.
He suggested this process should involve various stakeholders, including voluntary work organisations, to ensure that the necessary forms or documents can be understood by people from all backgrounds and educational levels.
Mr Lee said that since many changes will affect the legal profession, including a potential drop in the number of clients and more mandatory training, there could be resistance in the sector and it is important to address their concerns.
He said: "In having this conversation, we need to bring in the lawyers to ensure that all who are involved have been consulted."
Mr Vijayendran added: "The challenge for Law Society is to balance the interest of the profession with that of the public."