SINGAPORE'S newest courts opened their doors yesterday, heralding a fresh approach in the way family disputes and young offenders are handled. The aim is for these cases to be resolved faster, more effectively and, significantly, with less bitterness.
Calling it a historic moment, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said the reform could also see the setting up of an accreditation system for family lawyers to ensure they are properly skilled for the new legal landscape. "This is a critically important period for family justice in Singapore," he said.
The State Courts' Family and Juvenile Justice divisions have now become the Family Courts and Youth Courts. Along with the new Family Division of the High Court, these will come under a single administration under a presiding judge - Judicial Commissioner Valerie Thean.
The 45-year-old, who previously served as a senior district judge and was a deputy secretary at the Law Ministry among other things, took office yesterday.
The courts will handle all new family-related disputes, including domestic violence. From January, probate issues, such as wills and inheritance, will also come under their jurisdiction. By bringing these under one roof, the courts hope to deal with family issues in a holistic fashion, and also develop specialist family judges.
"After a divorce, ex-husbands are still fathers and ex-wives are still mothers," said CJ Menon. "After disputing over the assets of their deceased parents, brothers and sisters are still bound by familial ties. We must face up to these realities in thinking about how best to deal with these issues."
Judges can direct litigants to go through mediation and counselling first to settle disputes more amicably. It is also now compulsory for couples looking to split but have children below 21 to undergo counselling before filing for divorce.
Before, this was mandatory only for couples with children below 14. Out of 645 cases mediated last year, 82 per cent were settled. "It will save a lot of heartache, for if parties go for counselling, it will minimise acrimony and do away with long, drawn-out affidavits," said family lawyer Anuradha Sharma.
And when the case does land in court, there will be a centralised registry and a docket system to manage the cases and enable the same judge to control the pace of proceedings from start to finish.
The new system allows judges to direct the parties to focus on more substantial issues instead of using the courtroom as a stage to hurl allegations at each other through lengthy affidavits.
The welfare of children will be enhanced, with the court able to appoint child representatives drawn from a panel of seasoned family lawyers. Children "must not come out of the court feeling they have been the pawns or the spoils of battle", said CJ Menon.
The changes will also simplify and streamline court processes. NUS law don Lim Lei Theng said the new structure gives the courts the chance to "manage different problems with a firm, empathetic and compassionate hand".
But Ms Thean, who will be assisted by Senior District Judge Chia Wee Kiat as Registrar of the Family Courts, admits it will take time to get used to the changes.
"We have a lot to do to unlock the full potential of this new framework," she said.
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