Citing fault strains ties further: Family lawyers support proposed 'amicable divorce' model

With all the conflict with his ex-wife, Jack's relationship with his children became strained and the two teenagers stopped speaking to him.
With all the conflict with his ex-wife, Jack's relationship with his children became strained and the two teenagers stopped speaking to him.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Even though Jack (not his real name), a 53-year-old operations manager, initiated the divorce, detailing examples of his ex-wife's unreasonable behaviour to illustrate why his marriage had broken down was painful for him.

Jack said: "Having to be either the plaintiff or defendant makes it very confrontational. I had to cite incidents of her unreasonable behaviour and she also accused me of unreasonable behaviour.

"What she wrote made me even angrier, and our relationship got worse. It makes it harder to move on."

He felt that his ex-wife, a professional in her 50s, was too controlling and they could not get along. He also felt that they had problems communicating and the unhappiness built up over the 10 years they were wed.

After their divorce about a decade ago, the acrimony did not end.

She denied him his court-mandated access to the children. In turn, he withheld their maintenance payments to force her to give him access.

With all the conflict with his ex-wife, his relationship with his children became strained and the two teenagers stopped speaking to him.

Jack is all for the option of "amicable divorces", for which the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) is seeking public feedback. He was one of the divorcees who shared his experiences with the MSF at their engagement sessions in March.

In the proposed model, couples mutually consent to the divorce and they do not have to cite any of the five facts, such as unreasonable behaviour or adultery, that prove that the marriage has broken down "irretrievably".

They can also file for the divorce jointly and they would not need to take position of plaintiff or defendant, which forces them into an adversarial stance, those interviewed say.

MSF Minister of State Sun Xueling said the "amicable divorce" option builds on the "simplified track", which was introduced in 2015, that allows for a simpler divorce process if both parties agree to the divorce and all ancillary matters, like child custody and maintenance.

The proposed "amicable divorce" option also comes as the Family Justice Court is stressing the therapeutic justice approach.

Therapeutic justice is a non-adversarial process that seeks to solve problems and help parents learn to manage their conflicts so they can engage in co-parenting, instead of a single-minded pursuit of his or her interests.

Last year, 60 per cent of couples filed for divorce under the "simplified track", a MSF spokesman said.

However even with the "simplified track", couples still have to cite one of the five facts to prove the marriage has broken down irretrievably and a party must be the plaintiff and the other, the defendant.

According to the 2019 Marriages and Divorces Statistics published by the Department of Statistics, the top fact cited - comprising slightly over half of divorces under the Women's Charter - for the divorce was unreasonable behaviour.

Lawyers said detailing the other party's faults in character and behaviour to prove the charge of unreasonable behaviour inevitably leads to the other party hitting back, souring the relationship even more.

Lawyer Dorothy Tan said that she has couples who have agreed to proceed with a divorce on the "simplified track".

But after reading the details cited by the other party to support his or her case, the person feels aggrieved, and they end up fighting over the divorce. Such situations are not uncommon, she said.

She has also seen couples fighting over who gets to be the plaintiff, adding: "Looking at language itself, the origins of the word 'plaintiff' mean 'to complain' and 'one who has woe'. It gives the perception of there being an aggrieved party and an accused who must defend against alleged wrongdoing.

"There is often the concern of perception and whether it makes a person look bad if he or she was a defendant, as if the person had been a wrongdoer."

Singapore Management University Professor Chan Wing Cheong, who teaches law, said that the proposed "amicable divorce" option could lead to divorces being finalised more quickly and incur less legal cost, as couples do not have to cite a fault and fight to win their case in court.

Countries such as Malaysia, Australia and Japan have their version of the so-called "amicable divorce" option that the MSF is considering, lawyers said.

Lawyer Michelle Woodworth said that the amicable divorce option is a step in the right direction.

She said: "It will change how a divorce can be granted by eliminating blame… Relationships end for many a reason, but there is no necessity to mandate dredging up unkind and unpleasant details."