Divorces becoming less costly, time-consuming - thanks to reforms

As part of reforms, the courts will have the discretion to punish individuals who fail to comply with court orders that give a former spouse, without custody, access to the children.
As part of reforms, the courts will have the discretion to punish individuals who fail to comply with court orders that give a former spouse, without custody, access to the children. PHOTO: ST FILE

Divorces in Singapore are becoming increasingly less costly, less time-consuming and less prone to acrimonious disputes, figures provided by the Ministry of Law show.

More than 55 per cent of divorce cases last year were finalised in months instead of stretching to over a year. Also, nearly 90 per cent of divorce cases referred to mediation at the Family Justice Courts were partly or fully settled.

These are an improvement over 2017, when the respective rates were 49 per cent and 85 per cent.

As a result, the cost of divorce is reduced substantially, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam in an interview with The Straits Times. Likewise, the emotional turmoil the parties go through, he added.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Home Affairs Minister, attributed the successes to the reforms and initiatives introduced to the family justice system since 2014.

But more are to come. The Government is "not at the finishing line" yet in refining the system, he said earlier last month.

With the Government accepting a fortnight later the recommendations of the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System, several reforms are in the offing. These include judges being armed with powers to disallow applications made without merit, which will prevent family disputes from dragging on, as well as the setting up of an online platform that offers divorcing couples services like online counselling.

Also, the courts will have the discretion to punish individuals who fail to comply with court orders that give a former spouse, without custody, access to the children.

The changes to come will build on existing initiatives and past reforms, such as those set out in the Family Justice Act, which came into effect in 2014.

A key reform under the Act is the judge-led approach to matrimonial proceedings. It means that judges specialising in family matters lead and control the pace and direction of divorce proceedings.

Another is giving the court the power to appoint representatives to act as the independent voices of children in divorce cases.

A significant initiative introduced in 2015 is the simplified divorce track, which enables couples agreeing on all divorce-related issues to shorten the duration of the process by up to 12 months, said lawyers interviewed.

The number of divorces in Singapore has been hovering between 5,000 and sub-6,000 in the past 10 years, official figures show. They exclude Muslim divorces, which come under Syariah law.

Most lawyers and users of the Family Justice Courts' services find the reforms and initiatives have improved access to family justice.

A joint survey by the Family Justice Courts and the Law Ministry showed that 85 per cent of lawyers found the judge-led approach has made proceedings more efficient.

Similarly, 83 per cent of court users felt a child's interests are well protected by the child representative. The survey, done between 2018 and last year, polled 106 lawyers and 879 court users.

Family lawyer Low Jin Liang told The Straits Times that in the judge-led approach, judges can decide issues on the spot, precluding the need for parties to file additional court applications.

Such divorce cases can conclude six to 12 months faster, with his clients saving about $10,000, said Mr Low, senior associate director at PKWA Law Practice.

"It has become easier to work with the judge on trying to conclude the divorce with as little acrimony as possible," he added.

Mr Shanmugam, noting that many family law practitioners support the reforms, said: "In fact, the system is working because they came on board and worked with us on the forms and processes."

At the end of the day, the reforms and initiatives allowed the family justice system to focus better on the three main issues in divorce: the children's welfare, division of matrimonial assets and maintenance, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2020, with the headline 'Divorces becoming less costly, time-consuming - thanks to reforms'. Subscribe