SINGAPORE: Couples considering divorce may soon take more formal steps before deciding if they want to go ahead and split up officially.
If they do decide to divorce, the process also may be less acrimonious and adversarial, with a smaller impact on the couple's children and their future.
The Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF) on Thursday (Sep 19) proposed measures to make these changes happen.
Among the measures is an online platform that provides information for couples at a very early stage of proceedings, including a marital satisfaction self-assessment, housing and financial information, as well as counselling options.
Such couples may also be able to consider mediation.
Currently, counselling and mediation are typically options for couples who have already filed for divorce.
GETTING PERSONALISED INFORMATION
The committee also suggested improving the Mandatory Parenting Programme, which was introduced in 2015 for divorcing couples with minor children and who are unable to agree on matters like child custody and division of matrimonial assets.
The current programme covers generic content on financial planning, the impact of divorce on children as well as co-parenting, but this information could be more personalised, the committee suggested.
For example, a divorce may involve selling the matrimonial home and dividing the proceeds.
"Both parents may need to consider what their housing options are, whether they have sufficient means to afford a new home for their respective selfs and their children, provide child maintenance and manage separate budgetary provisions to sustain long-term living arrangements,” the committee said in its report.
The committee said its recommendations, submitted to the Government on Sep 13, come at a time of higher marriage dissolution rates among recent cohorts. There about 7,000 divorces a year in Singapore and about half of these involve at least one child below the age of 21.
Speaking to the media on Thursday at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee acknowledged that marital dispute is “highly personal” and can be extremely acrimonious.
While the hope is that more couples will look at saving their marriage, Mr Lee said: “We also hope to see that when couples do decide to split up, they go in with a clear understanding of what the implications really are and to be acutely aware of the impact of this process on their children.”
MAKING DIVORCE LESS PAINFUL
For those who decide to split up, the committee made recommendations that could make the process shorter and less adversarial, having a smaller impact on children.
Among them are the clarification and enhancement of the powers given to judges presiding over divorce cases.
Applications that drag a divorce case without merit, such as those for the discovery of documents not deemed to be necessary, may be disallowed by the Family Justice Courts.
“If they're (divorce proceedings) allowed to drag, you allow parties for whatever reason to take it out on each other, then the impact on children, especially young children, psychologically can be very long-lasting,” Mr Lee said.
More than 6,000 children are affected by divorce yearly, according to the committee.
While judges were already given expanded powers in 2015, broad wording of rules led to a lack of clarity that has given rise to uncertainty as to the ambit of the judges’ powers and the adoption of a more
cautious approach in some instances, the committee said.
Judges may also conduct hearings based on filed papers without the attendance of the parties, the committee said.
MORE STRUCTURED SOLUTIONS TO CHILD ACCESS ISSUES
The committee in its recommendations also addressed another aspect of divorces that can get heated - access to children.
Currently, when the court’s order for access to children is not complied with, there are only two remedies - committal proceedings that are strict and punitive, which the committee said does not resolve access issues, and reversal of care and control.
The committee suggested a more structured way of looking at and solving the underlying causes of non-compliance through efforts like parental education and co-mediation. The committee also proposed compensation of expenses and lost access time, and bonds to secure compliance.
Judges may also soon make substantive orders without any party making an application, changing the terms of an access order.
“The Committee recommends putting in more structure into what the courts are able to do to resolve access to children disputes. And this specifically focuses on giving them the powers to look at what is the cause of this difficulty,” Mr Lee said.
The committee also recommended making the process easier for those making an application at the Family Justice Courts, whether it is for divorce, probate or custody, so that they may make the filing themselves instead of hiring a lawyer to do it.
The committee also said people appointed as deputies for those who lack mental capacity are unclear of their scope of powers and suggested more avenues for them to learn about this.
The public can give their views on the recommendations via the REACH portal from Sep 20 to Nov 1 this year.