Judges may get more power to prevent prolonged divorce cases

Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee meeting divorce counsellors at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre yesterday. He said judges needed to be empowered further to ensure disputes in divorce cases do not become a zero-sum game. ST
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee meeting divorce counsellors at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre yesterday. He said judges needed to be empowered further to ensure disputes in divorce cases do not become a zero-sum game. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Recommendation among committee's proposals to enhance Family Justice System

Family Court judges are likely to get more power to prevent conflicts in divorce disputes from dragging on and inflicting more hurt on the children involved.

The Family Justice Courts (FJC) are also planning to use more tools to achieve the right outcomes.

These could include ordering a parent to place a security bond or undergo therapy to address the root cause of acrimony.

The aim is to get parents to comply with court access orders that give former spouses time with their children after a divorce.

These were two key recommendations put forward by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System that were announced yesterday.

While the total number of divorce cases and annulments fell slightly from 7,578 in 2017 to 7,344 last year, those who wed more recently are divorcing in greater numbers than before, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.

By the 10th year of marriage, 17 per cent of those who married in 2005 had their marriages dissolved, up from 12.2 per cent for those who wed in 1995.

With support for families vital in the face of increasing marital break-ups, the committee has been seeking ways to resolve disputes outside the court system, which tends to be adversarial, and to help heal strained relationships.

It is also proposing to give judges more power, for example, to stop parties from filing needless court applications and to weed out applications that have no merit.

Lawyers told The Straits Times that the filing of multiple applications is common in acrimonious divorces, when one party feels he or she has to fight back against the former spouse's applications for more maintenance or access, for example.

Another proposal is to empower judges to make substantive orders if, for example, they are in the best interests of the child.

However, this is subject to the usual processes that ensure that the party affected by the order is given a chance to be heard.

Mr Lee, who is law-trained, told reporters: "What we need to do is to empower the judges even further to ensure the dispute does not become a zero-sum game.

"If they (the cases) are allowed to drag on, for whatever reason, and (parties) take it out on each other, the impact on children, especially young children, psychologically can be very long lasting."

The committee is also proposing an online divorce platform that allows individuals to obtain information on housing and finance matters so they are better prepared for the future when they have gone their separate ways.

The committee also hopes to encourage more people to undergo counselling or mediation before they take the decisive step of divorcing. Mr Lee said: "For couples who are having difficulty in their relationship, it is a very private matter, we respect that. But if you feel that having a listening ear, someone who is able to help you look at the dispute from a new perspective, know that it is available to you.

 
 
 
 

"It is not compulsory, we don't want to foist it on couples."

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) also announced yesterday that it had appointed two new divorce support specialist agencies - Thrive Parenting under AMKFSC Community Services and Healing Hearts @ Fei Yue - to better support families undergoing divorce. These will add to the four existing centres.

The appointments, which took effect on Aug 1, were to expand support services in different regions for more accessibility, said MSF.

The committee also recommended that court processes be simplified to enable more timely and affordable procedures.

A plan to accredit family law practitioners and to improve the training of family law judges is also in the pipeline.

The committee also made several suggestions to safeguard the interests of people without mental capacity and assist their caregivers.

The committee did not give a timeline on the implementation of the proposals, but the public is invited to give their feedback on the Government's e-consultation Reach portal from today to Nov 1.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2019, with the headline 'Judges may get more power to prevent prolonged divorce cases'. Print Edition | Subscribe