New court can fast-track urgent cases

New court can fast-track urgent cases

SINGAPORE - The new Family Justice Courts will have the power to fast-track urgent cases that involve family and child safety issues.

Discussing the Family Justice Bill that was passed in Parliament yesterday, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the new courts will be empowered to "adjudicate and resolve family disputes more holistically, and without undue delay...and, hopefully, that will help reduce the trauma and acrimony involved in the divorce process".

The Family Justice Courts will oversee family and juvenile matters, including divorce and applications for personal protection orders.

Not all cases will be put in the same basket, but assigned to different tracks depending on the issues involved.

A new approach will place the judge at "the centre of the process", with the power to control the pace and direction of each case to suit the needs of the family.

The judge will also determine if there is room for amicable resolution for the parties involved, with help in the form of mediation or counselling.

Mr Shanmugam said that this approach will be an improvement over the "existing adversarial approach towards resolving family disputes", in which "issues that are not relevant to the court are allowed to drag out court time unnecessarily".

To reduce legal fees and ease the pain for families, court processes and practices will be simplified and streamlined as well.

These include reducing the number of pre-trial conferences, as well as limiting the number of affidavits and pages to be filed.

Currently, parties can be embroiled in tense disputes during the process, and irrelevant issues may extend the court case unnecessarily.

In proceedings involving the welfare or custody of a child, the courts may, where necessary, appoint a doctor, counsellor, social worker or mental-health professional to examine and assess the child for the purposes of preparing expert evidence for use in court.

However, Mr Shanmugam stressed that the new measures are not aimed at making it easier for couples to get divorced.

"Families should be saved as far as possible, and disputes should be brought before the court only as a 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 of the family."

The measures were recommended by a panel set up last year in the wake of rising divorce and annulment rates in Singapore.

The new rules relating to the procedures and practices of the Family Justice Courts will be implemented either later this year or early next year.

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