New moves to ensure justice for divided families - gently

New moves to ensure justice for divided families - gently

SINGAPORE - As family life comes under greater strain, Singapore is taking steps to ensure that its laws and courts are at hand to give justice to the vulnerable and to make sure that children do not get hurt when disputes break out.

A new working group has been set to keep the laws relevant as society develops, announced Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon yesterday when he addressed the Family Justice Courts (FJC) workplan seminar.

To set the right direction for difficult legal issues, a three- judge panel will sit in to ensure that family law develops in a "consistent and coherent" way.

When the Family Justice Courts were formed last October, it brought various aspects of family law administration under one roof.

Already, certain pieces have fallen in place. The parties are not allowed to drag their feet. A message has been sent to warring couples that the needs of the children come above their own.

If the reforms work as they should, only the most difficult cases will reach the family courts, said Chief Justice Menon.

Instead, specialist agencies will first try to resolve family disputes and provide counselling on divorce implications, he said.

Family cases are complex by nature. "In Singapore, this complexity can be made even more intricate by extended families and racial and cultural diversity."

Chief Justice Menon highlighted a case involving a divorcing couple with different religious and racial backgrounds.

"There were deep divisions where the children should live, worship or go to school," he said, adding that hostility was worse between the maternal and paternal grandmothers.

However, with the help of an FJC mediator and a counsellor, they realised the children "were privileged to be part of a rich heritage of two cultures" and went on to resolve their issues.

But not all differences can be resolved. So the hope is that couples contemplating divorce can negotiate a possible settlement before divorce papers are filed.

One object is to make agreements mediated outside courts more easily enforced.

And while rules have been consolidated, the intention is to simplify them further. "For courts dealing with family issues, simple rules that are easily understood are especially important," said the Chief Justice.

The new Family Law Review Working Group will look at areas that may require reform.

Chief Justice Menon also indicated that he wanted to better equip family lawyers for their new roles as "conflict managers and problem solvers". For this, he said, he has appointed a Family Law Practitioner Accreditation Committee chaired by Judge of Appeal Andrew Phang.

He made clear the group's recommendations may, or may not, involve accreditation for family lawyers.

Said lawyer Rajan Chettiar: "These moves are consistent with what the Chief Justice has been saying all along, which is to approach family justice in a holistic manner."

This article was first published on February 4, 2015.
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