Family Court judges may get more power to act to protect child in acrimonious divorces, among wide-ranging recommendations

  Last year, 7,344 marriages ended in a divorce or annulment, a 3.1 per cent drop from 2017.
Last year, 7,344 marriages ended in a divorce or annulment, a 3.1 per cent drop from 2017.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Family Court Judges are likely to get more power to act in divorce disputes to prevent conflicts from dragging on and inflicting more hurt to the children involved.

The Family Justice Courts (FJC) are also planning to use more tools, which could include ordering a parent to place a security bond or undergo therapy to address the root cause of acrimony. The aim is to get parents to comply with Court access orders that give ex-spouses time with their children post-divorce.

These were two key recommendations put forward by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System announced on Thursday (Sept 19).

While the total number of divorce and annulments fell slightly from 7,578 in 2017 to 7,344 last year, those who wed more recently are divorcing in greater numbers than those whose tied the knot in earlier periods, said Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Desmond Lee.

By the 10th year of marriage, 17 per cent of those who married in 2005 had had their marriages dissolved, up from 12.2 per cent for those wed in 1995.

With support for families vital in the face of increasing marital breakups, the Committee has been finding ways to resolve disputes outside the court system, which tends to be adversarial, and to help heal strained relationships.

It is also proposing to give judges more power, for example, to stop one party from filing yet another court application to weed out applications that have no merit.

Lawyers told The Straits Times the filing of multiple applications is common in acrimonious divorces, when one party feels he or she has to fight back against the ex-spouse’s applications, say for more maintenance or more access.

Another proposal is to empower judges to make substantive orders, for example if they are in the best interests of the child. However, this is subject to the usual processes that ensure that the party affected by the order is given a chance to be heard.

 
 
 
 

Mr Lee, who is law-trained himself, told reporters: “What we need to do is to empower the judges even further to ensure the dispute does not become a zero sum game.

“If they are allowed to drag on, for whatever reason, and (parties) take it out on each other, the impact on children, especially young children, psychologically can be very long lasting.”

The committee is also proposing an online divorce platform that allows individuals to obtain information on housing and finance matters, so they are better prepared for the future when they have gone their separate ways.

The committee also hopes to encourage more people to undergo counselling or mediation before they take the decisive step of divorcing, with Mr Lee saying: “For couples who are having difficulty in their relationship, it’s a very private matter, we respect that. But if you feel that having a listening ear, someone who is able to help you look at the dispute from a new perspective, know that it’s available to you.

“It’s not compulsory, we don’t want to foist it on couples.”

The MSF also announced on Thursday that it had appointed two new divorce support specialist agencies – Thrive Parenting! under AMKFSC Community Services and Healing Hearts @ Fei Yue – to better support families undergoing divorce, which will add to the four existing centres.

The appointments, which took effect on Aug 1 , were to expand support services in different regions for more accessibility, said MSF.

The committee also recommended that court processes be simplified to enable more timely and affordable procedures.

A plan to accredit family law practitioners and to improve the training of family law judges is also in the pipeline.

In addition, the committee made several suggestions to safeguard the interests of persons without mental capacity and assist their caregivers.

The committee did not give a timeline to the implementation of the proposals, but the public is invited to give their feedback on the Government’s e-consultation Reach portal from Sept 20 to Nov 1.