New family law aims to reduce angst: Indranee

Judges dealing with warring spouses will soon be able to help them focus on the key issues with less acrimony, anger and angst.

In cases where children are involved and a couple cannot resolve differences, they will have to go for counselling even before filing the writ for divorce.

Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah highlighted these two key initiatives under the new Family Justice Act when she spoke to The Sunday Times last week. The Act, which comes into force later this year, seeks to transform the way family conflicts are dealt with in court.

A lawyer herself, Ms Indranee co-chaired a committee of experts that put forward some recommendations which form the backbone of the Act. These include taking a judge-led approach in family cases rather than one dominated by duelling lawyers.

"The essential philosophy behind our recommendations is to save the marriage where possible, and where it is not possible and it goes to court, then you make the court process as less traumatic as possible," she said.

"An objective party must help spouses understand what are the real and underlying issues."

These objective parties will be counsellors who assist couples during the mandatory pre-divorce consultation sessions and, where cases do end up in court, the judge in the newly set-up specialist Family Justice Court.

It is necessary to have a specialist court that deals with family matters simply because you cannot approach a family case the way you would a normal commercial or criminal case, said Ms Indranee.

"Family cases are quite different in the sense that you are dealing with hurt, with anger, sometimes with pent-up frustration and a sense of loss and helplessness when the world around you breaks down. People will make decisions based on emotions."

This is why judges trained in the techniques of counselling and mediation would help parties focus on the issues at hand.

When she was in practice, she would see well-to-do couples fighting over $50. "It's not the quantity of the money, but the principle or the sense that if I give in to this, somehow I am losing and I don't want to lose," she said.

"The big tool this new Act has is the judge-led process to cut through all of this. That's why we really need a much more interventionist court."

Ms Indranee emphasised that the new law is not here to make divorce easier.

"You don't have to go through long legal documentation, but the general rule is that you must be married for three years before you can get a divorce, unless there are exceptional circumstances," she said. "That hasn't changed."

Radha Basu