Conducting mediation before couples file for divorce, giving parents more personalised data during the pre-filing period and upskilling lawyers and judges will help ease the difficult divorce journey, especially the impact on children.
These are some areas suggested by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF) to further strengthen the family justice system.
In sharing these ideas yesterday, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee said the RERF Committee, formed earlier this year and comprising representatives from the Family Justice Court, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), was meant to build on the work of the 2014 Committee for Family Justice.
The 2014 committee recommendations led to the inception of the Family Justice Courts, its Counselling and Psychological Services arm and the four Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) set up by the MSF, among other things.
"These efforts have had some impact. Within and outside the courts, and across all stages - from pre-filing, to the divorce proceedings, and post-divorce - more families are better supported than before," he said in his keynote address at the Family Justice Practice Forum 2018.
The event at the Supreme Court auditorium was attended by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts, Justice Debbie Ong, and other judges as well as about 400 legal fraternity participants.
The minister cited upbeat figures that backed the collective efforts made by the DSSAs and others in the past few years. He pointed out that divorce cases filed under the simplified track with no contested issues soared to 53 per cent for the first half of this year, compared with 24 per cent in 2015.
Committee's key proposals
Key recommendations made by the inter-agency committee tasked to review and enhance reforms in the family justice system:
Introduce more early intervention in the divorce process
The committee recommended providing more pre-filing mediation and counselling to help reduce acrimony.
This could help to increase the proportion of uncontested divorces and enable parents to focus more on their children's well-being.
Build on the role of family law practitioners and judges in the family justice courts
The committee considered how family law practitioners can be equipped to play a greater role in safeguarding the emotional and psy-chological well-being of families caught in disputes.
Lawyers can act as "first responders" and help steer families towards more therapeutic and restorative ways of resolution.
The courts could also be further equipped to ensure that family disputes are resolved in a more therapeutic and restorative manner.
Make deputyship applications more accessible and convenient
Against the backdrop of an ageing population, with a greater likelihood of mental health problems, the committee is studying how deputyship applications could be made more accessible and convenient. It is also looking at how deputies could be better equipped and supported.
This will make it easier for families caring for relatives without mental capacity and who may face disputes in decision-making.
Also, less than 5 per cent of concluded divorce cases last year required a final adjudication, either on divorce grounds or on ancillary matters, down from 7 per cent in 2016.
Mr Lee underscored the critical role of the family justice system, warning that while divorce rates had remained stable over the last six years and were lower than in places like Taiwan or the United States, "we cannot take this for granted, as we have also observed that the proportion of divorces in Singapore for recent marriage cohorts has been on the rise, compared to older cohorts".
He said children often suffer in divorces, especially acrimonious ones, and currently one in two divorces under the Women's Charter involves children younger than 21.
The RERF Committee recommended more upstream interventions, such as pre-filing mediation and counselling, to help reduce acrimony. For instance, parents can be given useful and personalised information on housing and finances during the pre-filing period.
These interventions could help increase the proportion of uncontested divorces and let parents focus more on their children's well-being.
Mr Lee noted that the RERF Committee considered how to better determine the kind of support families need, as families differ on many fronts. "One possible way is to put in place a 'triaging' process, to decide upfront what kinds of social services each divorcing family may require."
But changes in hardware such as systems and processes are not enough, and have to be supplemented by the "heartware" of "how we think and do things", he said.
To this end, he said lawyers play a potentially key "first responder'' role to families in dispute, while the courts could also be further equipped to ensure that family disputes are resolved in a more therapeutic and restorative manner.
"The vision we share as one community: to uphold justice compassionately, and restore broken relationships where possible, positively affirming the value of family that we hold dear," he said.
MSF and the Law Ministry will be engaging more stakeholders and the public in the coming months when the RERF Committee has submitted its recommendations.