A new court will be set up to deal with family disputes in less acrimonious ways under a law passed in Parliament yesterday. The aim is to ease the pain, better protect the vulnerable and cut costs and delays in cases of family conflict.
The Family Justice Courts will oversee divorce and other cases relating to painful and personal matters such as family violence, disputes over wills, adoption and guardianship, and custody and other family issues involving children.
The new system seeks to replace the old adversarial approach - dominated by duelling lawyers - with a judge-led one, where judges specialising in family matters will lead and control the pace and direction of cases.
Among measures being introduced: Parents who plan to divorce must attend a "pre-filing" consultation with state-appointed officials unless they are able to agree on all matters concerning the divorce. Newly appointed "court friends" will assist those not represented by lawyers. And the court will appoint a representative where necessary to protect the interests of the child in bitter divorce disputes.
The Family Justice Act also provides for a new Central Registry that receives, assigns and manages all cases for hearing. Urgent cases where a person's safety is at risk, for instance, will be fast-tracked. Complex cases requiring more rigorous and specialist attention will also be put on a separate track.
In any proceedings involving the welfare or custody of a child, the court may, where necessary, appoint a doctor, counsellor, social worker or mental health professional to examine and assess the child for the purpose of preparing expert evidence for use in court. Judges will also be empowered to order parties to undergo mediation or counselling.
Court processes are also being streamlined to reduce unnecessary legal costs and delays. Forms, for instance, are being simplified and affidavits must be filed according to standard templates.
Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam stressed that the changes are not aimed at making it easier for couples to divorce. "Families should be saved as far as possible, and disputes... brought before the court only as a last resort," he said. "But if the marriage has irretrievably broken down and the family ends up in the court system, the court process should not worsen the anguish of the family."
The 71-page law is based on comprehensive recommendations of a Committee for Family Justice comprising representatives from the Government, the courts, the social services and the legal fraternity. Chaired by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and then Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah, the committee was set up last year in the wake of rising divorce rates. There were 7,525 divorce and annulment cases last year, up 4 per cent from the year before.
Cutting across party lines, all eight MPs who spoke during the two-hour debate yesterday broadly supported the Bill. Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan lauded the Bill as one that championed a "major and much- needed revamp of our family justice system".
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) supported indications that the process would be "less adversarial, enabling the judge to probe beyond the symptoms to the root cause of the problems". And Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC) lauded the judge-led approach to protect the best interests of the child.
Mr Shanmugam said the law represents the Government's and the court's commitment to transform the system to help troubled families resolve disputes with as little emotional trauma as possible. "What we can do is help families resolve their issues, either by mending the relationship or, if that is not possible, by helping them move on with their lives."
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