Why It Matters

Ethics code for family lawyers

Lawyer conduct in handling family law cases is unlike other legal proceedings. For instance, in a custody spat, the best interests of the child get priority over the duty owed by a lawyer to the parent he represents.

And he has to grapple with the ethics involved.

Last month, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said family law practitioners "are often placed in a precarious position because of the many competing demands they face". "They owe duties to their clients, who are often in difficult, trying and emotionally charged situations. At the same time, they must constantly be mindful of the welfare of any affected children and, on top of this, of course, they owe duties to the court as advocates and solicitors."

Recognising such issues can present acute challenges, he called for clear standards of professional conduct to be developed.

On Monday, the Family Justice Courts together with the Law Society launched a consultation exercise for proposed rules which are expected to be eventually grafted on to the rules which govern the professional conduct of lawyers. Breaches of these rules may lead to disciplinary proceedings.

These proposed rules are meant to help lawyers navigate the difficult ethical issues faced in family law. Among other things, they require lawyers to advise clients about alternative ways to settle disputes and avoid conflict of interest.

Family law practitioner Rajan Chettiar suggested some steps that can be taken, leaving litigation as the last resort. "Attempt to negotiate with the spouse, engage lawyers to assist in the negotiation process if they are unable to negotiate, consider collaborative family law or private mediation before stepping onto the doorsteps of the court."

The proposed rules form part of an upgraded ecosystem for family law practitioners to promote their craft. What may be needed next is a system to certify them and provide a better reference mark for litigants drawn to family law cases.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2017, with the headline 'Ethics code for family lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe