New committee to make divorce proceedings less adversarial: Desmond Lee

A new committee to review and improve reforms in the family justice system will be set up to find an approach that is more therapeutic and restorative, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee.
A new committee to review and improve reforms in the family justice system will be set up to find an approach that is more therapeutic and restorative, said Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - The authorities are studying ways to make the family justice system less adversarial to reduce the trauma and scars of a long-drawn and bitter divorce on children.

One possibility is for counsellors and social workers to play a bigger role in working with the courts to help couples resolve their disputes.

Another possibility is for the Family Justice Courts (FJC) to change the way they make their decisions in divorce disputes.

Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Desmond Lee described these potential changes as he gave more details on the work of an inter-ministerial committee announced last November to improve the family justice system so as to ease the pain when families break up.

The committee will comprise officials from FJC, the MSF and the Law Ministry.

"Whether it is incremental or transformational, we need to study systems from around the world to look at what can work," he told reporters after visiting a PAP Community Foundation pre-school in Marsiling on Tuesday (Jan 2).

"But ultimately, we hope to see the number of contested cases come down," he added.

  • Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee unveiled other major plans of his ministry:

  • 1. Early childhood education
    Another 40,000 childcare places will be introduced by 2023 - 30 per cent more than today.

    2. Disabled people
    Initiative could see jobs brought nearer to the homes of disabled people. It could also benefit seniors and caregivers. Details are being worked out.

    3. Vulnerable adults
    The long-awaited Vulnerable Adults Bill will probably be put before Parliament in the first half of the year.

    The potential law will increase the state’s statutory powers to protect disabled and infirm adults from abuse.

The new committee, called the committee to review and enhance reforms in the family justice system will, among other things, find an approach that "will look at therapeutic and restorative justice as opportunities for feuding couples" to settle their differences outside court, Mr Lee said.

The move to ease the pain of divorce proceedings comes as the bulk of civil divorces are contested. In 2016, two in three were contested, often over child custody and property.

 

Noting the adversarial nature of divorce proceedings in Singapore, Mr Lee said: "The couple come feuding already and often they want to deprive the other of what they see as satisfaction."

For this reason, alternative dispute resolution methods may be introduced and couples could be required to use them, he added.Where possible, counsellors, social workers and other professionals would step in first to resolve the differences so that court litigation would be less adversarial.

Another possibility is to incorporate restorative justice, which is to help feuding couples understand the harm they have caused and pave the way for the relationship to heal.

Lawyer Ivan Cheong noted that mediation is currently the main alternative dispute resolution used by the FJC. It requires divorcing couples with at least one child under age 21 to attend a compulsory mediation and counselling programme to help ease the acrimony as they sort out disputes over their children.

Mr Cheong said restorative justice could direct the warring couple to focus on their roles as parents, rather than tear each other down to gain an edge in child custody or the division of assets.

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar wants counsellors to play a bigger role, saying: "If you can help people to cope with their emotions and move on, it will be less acrimonious."

Correction note: Mr Desmond Lee, the Minister for Social and Family Development, said during the interview that about 4,000 out of the 6,300 divorces were contested. The MSF would like to clarify that the about two in three figure refers to civil divorces that were contested at the point of filing.