'First responders' in divorce should be counsellors, not lawyers

One of the key propositions made by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System - to build on the role of family law practitioners and have lawyers act as "first responders" in a divorce - is rather disconcerting (Early intervention can help ease pain of divorce: Desmond Lee; Oct 3).

Numerous letters in recent months have shed light on some of the unethical behaviour and conduct of divorce lawyers in Singapore (Tackle practice of denying kids access to other parent in divorce cases, by Mr Gordon Quek, March 19; Better gender balance needed in family justice system, by Mr Daniel Lim, Aug 21; and Shared care and control statistics don't gel with court's position, by Ms Heather Lim, Sept 7).

These include fomenting conflict and preventing amicable settlements between parties, using children as "pawns" or "hostages" in a divorce and gross overcharging.

These examples of unsavoury conduct raise questions about whether lawyers are the correct professionals to engage in a family dispute.

The Government and Family Justice Courts have spoken for some years about moving towards a non-adversarial system for resolving family disputes in Singapore. Thus far, however, there has been little concrete action.

Flagrant and frivolous claims of abuse and unreasonable behaviour continue to be lobbed around in the Family Court, accentuating the agony for parties and their children.

Without addressing the current adversarial nature of family law practice and deconflicting the lawyer's role, it will be a futile effort and a waste of public resources to introduce more programmes to reduce "acrimony" in divorces.

We cannot have a situation where a marriage is "pronounced dead" and a family is broken up even before any resuscitation attempts or efforts to help parties manage and mend their relationships are undertaken.

Just like how in a car accident or a fire, the first responders are the paramedics or firefighters, in a family dispute, the right professionals to act as the first responder should be trained counsellors and family therapists - not lawyers who stand to profit from perpetuating the conflict.

Oh Ee Hoe

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2018, with the headline ''First responders' in divorce should be counsellors, not lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe