Checking heat of spousal battles

Feminists found an ironic champion in Justice Choo Han Teck when he firmly denied even token maintenance to a divorced woman in a recent case as it would reflect "deep chauvinistic thinking". Few would deem alimony appropriate in that matter as the woman earned more than the man, over $200,000 annually, and owned more than twice the assets he had. Yet, it was telling that her lawyer had put forth a $120,000 maintenance claim. Such an adversarial manner is to be expected when legal eagles lead the civil divorce process and affidavits fly hither and thither to squeeze the last drop out of the other, with all previous sentiments between the couple cast aside.

Overhauling this system is the commendable aim of the Family Justice Committee formed last year and set to present its recommendations for public consultation before long. For those who need to turn to the courts - divorce rates have soared from 1,721 cases in 1980 to 7,237 in 2012 - any changes would be welcome. Court procedures are arduous and legal costs burdensome.

If judges adopt a more central, proactive role, both sides might be able to move away from cross-allegations and address the essential issues when the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Acrimony stirred up over, say, the custody of children can be a big impediment when former spouses have to adjust to new co-parenting roles.

An overhaul of attitudes will be needed if all stakeholders are to see family justice in a fresh light. This includes updating perceptions of rights and responsibilities defined strictly by gender, rather than needs, and acknowledging the increased earning power of women. They are playing a bigger part in ever-expanding spheres and expect to be "treated as equal to men in marriage and in divorce", as the judge noted. By extension, one might argue that a man ought to be able to claim maintenance as well when there are reasonable grounds to do so. Nonetheless, it's important to bear in mind that, despite progress, women still bear a disproportionate share of the everyday effort of caring for the family.

What can facilitate normative shifts is the updating of the 1961 Women's Charter. Justice Choo suggested a Marriage Charter instead. But perhaps the time has come for a Family Charter that can accord "rights and protection to the family, rather than to one gender", as a government public consultation paper noted in 2010. This would be also in step with moves to develop a profession of "family justice practitioners", as envisioned by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. A focus on the family can help to reduce the gender-based duelling that now characterise matrimonial disputes.