Reducing conflict key in family law cases: CJ

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency, on April 22, 2016.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon at the second Constitutional Commission hearing on the elected presidency, on April 22, 2016. PHOTO: ST FILE

Lawyers can influence client to put child's welfare first, he says

The family justice process starts when a lawyer is approached by a potential client whose personal life is falling apart.

As the "first port of call", the lawyer has a "tremendous opportunity" to influence the way a client approaches the dispute, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.

Speaking at the Family Justice Practice Forum yesterday, he said: "In other areas of litigation, conflict is necessary, even helpful, to the process of getting to the issues.

"But in family justice, we prioritise the welfare of the child as a core tenet. And because of this, the reduction of conflict becomes critical."

Apart from children, Singapore's vulnerable population also includes the growing number of elderly people and those with mental illnesses.

The Chief Justice said: "Lawyers are the best first responders in this landscape of special needs, and of different types of vulnerabilities. It is the lawyer who comes into contact with the parties, well before the court does."

He added that it is crucial that lawyers understand the responsibilities and the opportunities this presents. Globally, there is growing awareness that family lawyers must aim to achieve outcomes beneficial to everyone involved, and not just their clients, he said.

To do so, family lawyers can advise clients to cooperate with the other party, unless there are safety concerns. Lawyers can also practise preventive lawyering, he added.

He said: "For example, they could consciously time the filing of a writ for divorce so as to avoid surprise that might lead to unnecessary spousal conflict and emotional harm to children."

Yesterday's forum was held at the Supreme Court and attended by family lawyers.

The Chief Justice said if there are underlying needs and issues, lawyers should help clients get the right kind of help - be it therapists, mental health professionals, co-parenting or anger management classes, family service centres or government agencies.

In his speech, he outlined recent changes in the family justice system. These include the 2014 Child Representative scheme, where lawyers on a panel are appointed to speak to those in a child's life, and give the child a voice in court.

Since October 2014, representatives were appointed in 24 cases.

Another scheme is the mandatory mediation and counselling for cases involving children under 21. In 2014, 75 per cent of these cases achieved full resolution. In 2015, 77 per cent of such cases did so.

Looking to the future, the Chief Justice said care for the aged can give rise to complex issues related to mental capacity laws, such as in the case of tour guide Yang Yin, who was found guilty of misappropriating an elderly widow's money.

Another complex area is the growing international dimension of family law work. In the past three years, about 40 per cent of divorce cases each year involved a foreigner, and a third of those cases involved a child under 21.

"These cases raise a number of cross-border concerns, including enforcement, relocation and custody issues," he said.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin also spoke at yesterday's forum.

In his speech, he said while couples who file for divorce are expected to move on with their lives after the case is over, "the reality is not quite so simple".

He said: "The emotional and financial impact of marital breakdown and divorce will remain as former spouses begin the process of unravelling their shared lives."

Lawyers, he added, can help by offering advice and making the situation better. He said: "The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we peacemakers or are we fomenting conflict?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Reducing conflict key in family law cases: CJ'. Print Edition | Subscribe