New Family Justice Courts proposed to oversee cases

Revamp aims to make divorce less acrimonious and protect children

A new one-stop Family Justice Courts system may soon be set up to make divorce cases less acrimonious and better protect children, going by the recommendation of a high-level group looking to revamp family justice here.

It will oversee all types of family cases and make the civil divorce process simpler and less adversarial, said recommendations released for public consultation yesterday.

The group also hopes to equip people in places such as schools, hospitals and family service centres with the skills to pick up and refer cases of families in distress, to ensure that they receive help before ending up in court.

"Family disputes often have a high emotional cost, and a painful and lasting impact on spouses and children," said Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah, who chairs the committee with Judge of Appeal V. K. Rajah.

"The aim of this review is to revamp the family justice system not only in terms of structures and institutions but also to reduce acrimony, create a more supportive environment for troubled families, and above all to ensure that the best interests of the child are given primacy and priority."

The proposed structure hopes to simplify court procedures as well as reduce legal costs and stress for families by bringing the Family Court, High Court (Family Division) and Juvenile Court all under one Family Justice Courts system. A Family Justice Act will be enacted to set out the jurisdiction and powers of the new Courts.

Family cases are now heard under different courts, depending on their nature and the value of assets at stake. This means when cases are transferred from one court to another, clients can wait up to six months before appeals or complex cases are heard, said senior divorce lawyer Tan Siew Kim.

Cases do pass through different hands and the multiple parties involved may not get a full picture, she added.

The new system will have judges taking a more central and proactive role in divorce proceedings. This enables divorces to be dealt with amicably and quickly, unlike in the English system where the judge adjudicates between two warring parties.

To ensure the interests of children are not overlooked in ugly family disputes, the committee suggested appointing "Child Representatives" to advocate for the children in certain court proceedings, among other things.

It also suggested setting up specialist agencies to provide services such as counselling and non-legal advice that address issues arising from divorce.

There are three centres specialising in family violence here but they do not offer mediation or divorce-related services.

Mrs Seah Kheng Yeow, head of family development at specialist agency Pave, said the value of the new centres lies in the expertise of its social workers.

Family lawyer Rajan Chettiar, who has taken part in discussions on the revamp, called the changes "comprehensive".

"But what's key is that it puts the focus on the child and remembering that helps both parties try to move on to be better parents."

Sales director Sandra Ong, 48, whose divorce case was transferred between courts, said: "These are good moves, especially for laymen like us who find the whole court process tedious, expensive and confusing."

The consultation paper can be found on the Ministry of Law and Reach websites.

The exercise closes on June 7.

Some of the group's proposals

AN INTER-AGENCY committee set up last year to reform the family justice system has released recommendations that it is seeking public views on. Here are some key recommendations:

  • Creating a new family court structure known as the Family Justice Courts through a new Family Justice Act.
  • Having specialist agencies in key areas across Singapore to offer services such as counselling and non-legal advice to address issues arising from divorce.
  • Protecting the interests of children in divorce cases by appointing child representatives in appropriate court proceedings to act as their advocate.
  • Equipping people at community agencies such as family service centres, schools or hospitals to pick up and refer cases.

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