SINGAPORE - The needs of the children often fall by the wayside when their parents embark on long and hostile divorce proceedings.
To put the children's interests before that of the adults', the Syariah Court will be introducing measures from as early as next year to make the divorce process more child-centric.
"The divorce of parents hurts the family, even if it is amicable," said Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, who was speaking to an audience of 150 family lawyers, representatives from government agencies and other stakeholders at a seminar on managing divorces which involve children.
"The impact can continue with the children into adulthood. Research has shown that those who experienced divorce as children face challenges breaking the cycle in adulthood," he added.
From early next year, couples with children aged below 18 will be required to submit co-parenting plans even before court proceedings start. Marriage counsellors will be trained to work with divorcing couples on these plans.
The Syariah Court will partner self-help group Mendaki to refer clients with children to Malay/Muslim organisations and other agencies for on-the-spot information on financial or educational issues.
Currently, couples are encouraged to attend pre-divorce briefings where they will be shown how to navigate the court system and directed to support services that are available to them.
The Syariah Court also refers cases of couples with children to the Housing Board so that they can receive guidance on their housing arrangements after their divorce. This is to ensure that the children will have a roof over their heads after their parents split. There are several rules governing the sale or retention of flats for divorcees with children.
The court is also partnering social service agencies to prepare social welfare reports which will help the court make informed decisions in cases of child custody disputes. This is crucial as nearly a third of Muslim divorces are contested.
In some cases, couples need to work out interim arrangements for access to the child while court proceedings are ongoing. The court will work with the Centre for Family Harmony to help them do so.
More than 1,500 Muslim couples divorced each year over the last three years. More than two thirds of them have children aged 18 years and below. This means more than 2,000 children are affected by these divorces.
Often, counsellors and lawyers say that the breakdown of a marriage is especially traumatic for the child because it can be a long-drawn process and the child can be used as a "bargaining chip" by either parent to settle other matters.
There has been a stronger focus placed on securing child welfare in divorce proceedings recently. Recommendations released earlier this month by a high-level group looking to revamp family justice here proposed appointing child representatives in appropriate court proceedings to act as their advocate in divorce cases. The Ministry of Social and Family Development also said in March that it will introduce a new programme for parents thinking about splitting up to ensure their children's needs are considered before they start divorce proceedings.