Limit role of lawyers in family justice system

The Chief Justice, in his speech at the opening of the legal year on Jan 8, directed the Family Justice Courts to work with the Law Society to explore the possibility of launching a "low bono" model to increase access to legal services for those in the sandwich class who are embroiled in family disputes (Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon moots idea of 'low bono' scheme for family disputes; ST Online, Jan 8).

While this may sound like a reasonable response to the manifestly excessive fees of $10,000 to over $100,000 currently charged by family lawyers for divorce and other family-related proceedings , it is in practice difficult to achieve.

Lawyers in Singapore have tremendous latitude and discretion over the fees they charge.

Besides the wide range of hourly rates which they use to bill clients, lawyers can also charge for simple routine matters like answering phone calls or replying to e-mails - each of which can cost several hundreds of dollars.

The likely outcome of a low bono model is that lawyers would simply reduce the amount of time and effort they spend on the case. This would not only be detrimental to their clients' interests, but also counterproductive to the intended goal of improving access to family justice.

The vast majority of divorce and other family-related proceedings are emotional entanglements and not complex legal issues. The right professional in such circumstances should be a trained counsellor or mediator.

To this end, for most non-complicated family proceedings - for example, divorces involving assets below $2 million - Singapore's family justice system should do away with lawyers and instead adopt a judge/mediator-led framework where parties can focus on resolving their differences.

For more complex cases that require legal representation, an application should be made to the courts - which will then decide if a lawyer is indeed necessary and, if so, assign legal representation from a list of accredited family lawyers or mediators.

Fee guidelines should also be clearly stated.

Such an approach will help balance the unique nature of family proceedings with the need for access to justice.

Peter Ong Teck Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'Limit role of lawyers in family justice system'. Print Edition | Subscribe