SINGAPORE: The Family Justice Courts (FJC) unveiled its 2017 workplan on Monday (Feb 20) - one which it said places the interests of children at the fore by resolving disputes quickly, effectively and with less animosity between parties.
It was announced by Judicial Commissioner Valerie Thean at a closed-door seminar. She said former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong’s view was that Singapore’s judicial system enforced and protected the legal rights and interests of litigants, and that family law was no exception.
However, Ms Thean noted that such enforcement has psychological consequences on those affected by a case, such as children at the centre of a divorce.
“When a plaintiff comes to court to, in his mind, ‘seek justice’, he is essentially saying he wants to be proved right, and the defendant utterly and incontrovertibly wrong,” she said.
“The irony is that within the complexity of a relationship, the answer, if not delivered well, could serve very little purpose and in fact do more harm than good. Thus, family justice is also said to require therapeutic outcomes,” she added.
For acrimonious divorces, the FJC may rope in the services of parenting coordinators. Under a pilot scheme since last year, 24 of these specially-trained lawyers assist parents in the implementation of court orders such as child access arrangements.
One of these lawyers, Mr Raymond Yeo, said this involves the lawyer playing the role of mediator - to help resolve minor disputes such as the timing and venue to hand over the child to the other parent. He added that this minimises the likelihood of parties having to return to court, causing additional stress for the child.
The scheme will be expanded this year to include coordinators from the social science fields, such as social workers and psychologists.
"When we deal with parenting coordination work, we don't just deal with the legal aspect. We deal a lot with party's emotions, and that's where the softer skills come in,” said Mr Yeo. “So if we can have a lawyer, perhaps even paired up with a counsellor or social worker, or a psychologist that's actually trained in parenting coordination, I think it will give a really holistic approach in resolving conflicts between two parents."
Amendments to rules governing lawyers’ professional conduct were also proposed. These include making it mandatory for family lawyers to advise their clients that the court will prioritise the best interests of children over the wishes of parents or children, or both. They also prevent a lawyer acting as a parenting coordinator or representing the child in a case to subsequently act for any party in matters relating to the family proceedings.
Much of these rules were originally unwritten ethical guidelines that were “just understood and taught”, said family lawyer Malathi Das - a member of the ethics workgroup which drafted the proposed amendments.
“I would see the changes being brought in for family law practice as being a fine-tuning or a calibration of existing rules so that they are more specific, that are more child-centric,” said Ms Das. “They take into account recent developments with respect to other forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, with the introduction of new initiatives like the child representative and parenting coordinators.”
Ms Das added that the rules could also protect lawyers from pressure by their clients to carry out unethical, but otherwise legal action.
She said: “One of the greatest challenges in family practice is the expectations of clients, and those expectations translating into possible difficulties on the part of lawyers to meet those expectations.
"And because of that, you find that having ethical rules and a robust code of conduct will also help the lawyer in a way referee the dispute by telling clients: 'Look I'm not allowed to do this because this is unethical and I will get into trouble for it.' I think it is good that we can be honest with clients and point to a specific code or a specific rule.”
REFINEMENTS TO CURRENT PRACTICES
The FJC also revealed results of a pilot study of its Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution Programme. In 2016, the programme managed to achieve an 80 per cent resolution rate - where at least one or all cases involving children’s issues were settled.
But to further refine its child-centric approach in areas such as mediation and counselling, the FJC will also partner the National Institute of Education this year on longitudinal research examining the impact of its approach on parents as well as children.
Pending the approval of Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Institutional Review Board, the study will explore the outcomes of 300 families that have undergone counselling and mediation at the Family Dispute Resolution Division of the courts on divorce and ancillary matters.
Other planned improvements to the family justice process include the launch of a new Family Protection Centre in the second half of the year, to offer those exposed to family violence a “more private and calming environment” where their applications for Personal Protection Orders will be handled. This will be complemented with a new IT system called iFAMS, which would allow parties to file such applications at the Family Court Registry or Family Violence Specialist Centres.