'Encouraging' results from divorce mediation: Family Justice Courts

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SINGAPORE - Almost seven out of 10 divorce cases that went to mediation were resolved through the process last year, without the need to go to contested hearings.

The "encouraging results" were helped by support schemes and simplified processes, as well as the efforts of family courts staff and partners in the community, Justice Debbie Ong, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts (FJC) said on Wednesday (Feb 28).

Speaking at the FJC's Workplan 2018 seminar, she noted that 15 per cent of cases were partially resolved, meaning that fewer issues went on to contested hearings.

The figures are in line with the family courts' plans to make divorce proceedings less adversarial and minimise conflict for the sake of children's welfare

Justice Ong was speaking at The Supreme Court in her first public speech since her appointment as Presiding Judge of FJC last September. During the session, she laid out the court's priorities and plans for the next phase of family justice in Singapore.

She said that even when parties make applications to court, there "will always be the possibility of mediation or non-litigious resolution at all stages in the divorce process."

The FJC is also looking at building online mediation facilities such as online dispute resolution (ODR)- which would allow users to seek resolution without having to litigate - for child maintenance claims.

The project aims to provide an outcome simulator to help parties understand the possible outcome of a maintenance claim, and a forum for both parties to negotiate.

When negotiation fails, online mediation of the claims will be provided.

"It is envisaged that ODR will help parties to resolve their child maintenance claims earlier and with less costs, ultimately benefiting the children," said Justice Ong.

Other FJC measures includes a plan to study how elderly and vulnerable court users can be helped through the court process.

Her speech stressed the FJC's role in meeting the needs of various family members embroiled in legal disputes. "It is important that parties recognise the role of FJC as a court which applies the law to reach a just decision between both parties; it is not an 'agency' that serves the needs of only one party," she said. "Respect for the court's authority is necessary in the family justice system."

She added that the presence of children makes it necessary for the FJC to take on a broader role and that the recently formed inter-agency Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF) committee will work to empower parties to make decisions that are good for their children. Measures include facilitating parties access to various support services before they even file for divorce.

Justice Ong co-chairs the RERF committee along with the permanent secretaries of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Ministry of Law. Its purview includes promoting alternative and multi-disciplinary approaches to conflict resolution, reducing the cost and complexity of proceedings, and strengthening access to family justice.

As part of the work plan, lawyers and judges will also be trained. The FJC will work with The Law Society of Singapore and the Singapore Academy of Law to offer appropriate training in two upcoming conferences on family law and justice.

FJC is also looking into developing a targeted and specialised curriculum for family judges that emphasises the specific competencies in family justice.

Commenting on the role of mediation, lawyer Raymond Yeo said: "Mediation has always been the forefront where family court is concerned, because this will be the alternative route to an adversarial approach. The family lawyers work together with the family court to try and resolve as many disputes as possible through the mediation process."

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