Room for family courts to be even more efficient

Lawyers who unduly drag out the divorce process by recurrently filing paperwork tardily, past court-stipulated deadlines, should be held accountable.
Lawyers who unduly drag out the divorce process by recurrently filing paperwork tardily, past court-stipulated deadlines, should be held accountable. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Family Justice Courts (FJC) has made great strides in accelerating divorce settlements in Singapore.

In 2016, the number of divorce cases settled within the year they were filed jumped to 74 per cent, up from 46 per cent in 2012 (Divorce cases now settled more speedily in court, Feb 21, 2017). The heightened efficiency was attributed to various initiatives, including the Individual Docketing System.

Nonetheless, the FJC might wish to consider the following suggestions.

As Forum writer Patricia Tan pointed out (Reconciliation process needs to be included in family justice system, April 20), the divorce process can often become pointlessly stretched, or even futile, with the involvement of lawyers.

In the case of ethical and efficient lawyers, this would be less of a concern. However, lawyers who unduly drag out the divorce process by recurrently filing paperwork tardily, past court-stipulated deadlines, should be held accountable.

At present, the minuscule amount of cost penalty issued for tardy filings, if even ordered, hardly serves as a deterrent as these lawyers are not the bearers of such costs.

Even if they were, they might still find it more profitable to prolong the case by feasting upon their opponent's punctual filing before submitting one that is craftily tailored to their opponent's.

I am not saying that all lawyers deliberately engage in delayed filings for tactical points; there are law firms that genuinely struggle with time management, staffing and competency issues.

However, such glitches must be resolved internally so as to avert protracting the divorce process and consuming the court's precious resources, which would be better directed towards the children involved.

The FJC has been outstanding in steering seven out of 10 divorces through mediation without contested hearings.

However, such statistics can be enhanced by reducing, or eliminating altogether, the amount of time mediating parties have to retract from their mediated agreement.

At present, I believe parties are given up to five weeks to change their minds, and it is common to see buyer's remorse setting in and defeating the arduous and costly work of mediation.

Lily Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2019, with the headline 'Room for family courts to be even more efficient'. Print Edition | Subscribe