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Parliament passes Family Justice Bill

A new Bill providing more support for divorcing couples was passed in Parliament on Monday (Aug 4). It puts in place simplified court processes and establishes a body of specialised courts, including one which deals with family-related disputes.

SINGAPORE: Ending a marriage usually involves a daunting court procedure, even more so when the couple has children. But divorcing couples will soon get some reprieve with a new Family Justice Bill passed in Parliament on Monday (Aug 4). Among the changes - a new Family Justice Courts comprising the High Court (Family Division), the Family Court and the Youth Court.

Besides court officers to support the usual court functions, counsellors, social workers and psychologists may also be appointed to support the operations of the (Family Justice) Courts. New court processes will also be put in place to reduce the costs and delays in divorce proceedings, in what the Law Ministry said will lead to "friendlier processes" for parties not represented by lawyers. These include simplified court forms and fewer pre-trial conferences to attend. to hear all family-related proceedings.

The Bill will also give the Family Justice Courts new powers, such as the authority to order parties to undergo mediation or counselling. Law Minister K Shanmugam stressed that the changes are not aimed at making divorces easier. "Families should be saved as far as possible, and disputes should be brought before the court only as the last resort," he said. "But if the marriage has irretrievably broken down and the family ends up in the court system, the court process should not worsen the anguish for the family."

Eight MPs rose in support of the Bill's objective to resolve family disputes more effectively. But many of them highlighted the need to protect the interests of children involved in family disputes. MPs also raised the importance of family law practitioners having the right skill sets, and the need to attract the right talent.

Said East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan: "In family dispute cases, clients often do turn to their lawyers for guidance and counsel, more than just legal advice. And oftentimes, family lawyers do need specific skills outside of their mastery of law. I guess the real question also is - will the family justice system be able to attract the right talent, i.e. the right lawyers to practise family law, given that family law may not always be the most attractive specialisation for lawyers."

Sharing Ms Tan's sentiments was Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan, who said family law is not "as attractive as the material lure and glam factor of corporate law". Responding to these concerns, Mr Shanmugam acknowledged the need for family law practitioners to be equipped with skills in areas other than law.

"The family lawyer's role will remain central to the delivery of quality and timely justice," he emphasised. "That said, it must evolve to effectively manage legal disputes, which are in reality symptoms of a family's underlying emotional, financial and other practical problems. Family lawyers must understand how to use dispute-resolution mechanism, such as counselling and mediation to deal with the underlying family conflicts."

A new Family Law accreditation scheme will also be introduced, where lawyers will undergo specialist training, to enhance family law practice in the new family justice system. The details of the scheme will be announced in due course.  

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