When it was enacted in 1961, the Women's Charter was, fittingly, viewed as an epochal event for modernising marital relations, by making monogamy compulsory and improving the status of women within marriage. It remains a "shining piece of legislation", in the words of an observer, for setting family law on a "thoughtful moral course". Over the years, however, it has not been morality per se but issues of law, legal processes, lawyers and judicial proceedings that have held court, from a lay perspective. Spouses have aired dirty linen, bickered over matrimonial assets, and maligned each other to gain custody of children. The Charter has been amended from time to time - as it was last month - but never did the moral foundation of family legislation shine as strongly as during the reform of family justice administration in 2014. Now it is no longer about winning a case but of restoring broken lives as best as is possible. Instead of mainly legal counsel at the fore, mediators and counsellors are also in the picture; and judges play a more pro-active role. Couples are steered away from bitter issues of separation to focus on co-parenting, and children are given a voice as well so family relationships can continue long after the case file has been closed.
The Family Justice Courts, created 17 months ago, sees itself offering "a safe space" for family matters to be resolved. The aim is to handle every case judiciously and without delay so the trauma of family break-ups is not dragged out, with lawyers billing clients by the hour. The new approach can facilitate the normative shift needed for divorce and custody matters to be settled in a family-centred and solicitous manner. But account must also be taken of individuals who might adopt an adversarial stance and insist on having their own way. Obliging them to go for mediation and counselling after having begun the legal process might not be productive when emotional temperatures have already been raised by opening moves. The latest amendment to the Women's Charter is to avert this possibility by making it compulsory for a couple to attend a parenting programme before filing for divorce, unless they have agreed beforehand on a co-parenting plan.
By taking a problem-solving approach to justice, the courts can help to direct the minds of couples on what matters more. These include safeguarding the interests of children, settling conflicts rather than letting them fester, reducing the stress and cost of dispute resolution, and creating a positive environment to support family members after a father and mother go their separate ways. Such a moral underpinning can help ensure that all parties before the court, including professionals assisting in the process, keep their gaze squarely on the family, rather than on grievances that have torn it asunder. Divorce is a sad fact of life but its consequences need not be woeful.