Ways being explored to ease trauma of divorce on children

Panel to look at bigger role for social workers and a less adversarial family justice system

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 Desmond Lee described these potential changes when he talked about the work of an inter-ministerial committee announced last November.

It will comprise officials from FJC, the Ministry of Social and Family Development 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. "But ultimately, we hope to see the number of contested cases come down," he added.

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, about 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.

He 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 division of assets.

Lawyer Rajan Chettiar wants counsellors to play a bigger role. He said: "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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2018, with the headline 'Ways being explored to ease trauma of divorce on children'. Print Edition | Subscribe