While reviewing their 2020 caseloads, senior family lawyers in Singapore noticed an astounding rise in divorce applications, personal protection cases, and maintenance payment issues, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, a surge in domestic violence cases was also reported during this time.
But even though the pandemic may have seen a spike in such cases, family law issues remain common in any social setting.
To talk more about this subject and to learn about the workings of a lawyer in Singapore, theAsianparent reached out to Mr Lim Chong Boon, Director at PKWA Law and the Head of the Family Law and General Litigation Practice.
During our tete-a-tete, Mr Lim spoke about family law in Singapore and shared important tips for couples who may be going through a divorce and how they can handle it sensitively with their children.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview.
Family lawyers have the potential to profoundly affect relationships and society
theAsianparent: How did you get into family law and how does it impact families in Singapore?
Mr Lim: I’ve been doing a mix of general litigation and family law for over 30 years. Having done both general litigations (which includes corporate commercial litigation), I know from experience how uniquely rewarding family law practice can be.
At PKWA Law, our family lawyers make a difference in people’s lives, and we get lots of appreciative clients thanking us for helping with their family law issues.
It was a gradual process to move completely into family law, and I am very happy I made the switch. Family lawyers have the potential to profoundly affect relationships and society.
theAsianparent: What inspires you to continue to be a family lawyer?
Mr Lim: I have done a lot of commercial cases before, and the big difference is that in family law, you actually feel that you are doing something that helps society and your clients.
You know, technology is already having a structural impact on the profession and changing the nature of job roles. But the role of a family lawyer can never be replaced by technology.
In the case of a divorce client, to get for my divorce clients their rights to children and a fair share of the matrimonial assets is what makes me turn up at work every day.
Family cases are special in nature. People come to see us to rearrange their most private and intimate family affairs.
Which other job can a professional get so much trust? As family lawyers, it is gratifying that your clients trust you with the most intimate details of their family life and it is our job to repay that trust by doing a good job.
theAsianparent: What was the most rewarding experience in your legal career?
Mr Lim: Usually, the cases in which the children are suffering because one spouse is using violence at home against the children and/or our clients.
It is uplifting when you finally conclude a case like this and see our clients get what is fair and the opportunity a start a new life.
Most of these clients who see us are so very afraid of what their spouse will do to them after years of violence and abuse. It is really rewarding to see them move ahead.
theAsianparent: With so much competition in the market, what makes you and your firm stand apart?
Mr Lim: We offer fees that are published on our website. Our fees are fixed, clear and transparent. So, no matter who you are – you know our fees apply equally to everyone. Of course, reasonable fees alone are not sufficient to stand out. You also need to have a first-class legal team.
I am fortunate to have an excellent team of family lawyers. Our senior family lawyers such as Ms Dorothy Tan who was listed in the Top 100 Women in Litigation in Asia-Pacific by Benchmark Litigation 2021.
She is among 11 Singapore female lawyers who are recognised. Dorothy is recognised as a leading lawyer in family and matrimonial law. Mr Low Jin Liang was named as one of Singapore’s Most Influential Lawyers Under 40 by Singapore Business Review in 2016.
theAsianparent: How do you make sure that your fee is affordable since the market is so competitive?
Mr Lim: Our fees are very affordable, and we can do it because we leverage heavily on technology to do our work. Technology is available for us to do our work efficiently.
A noticeable rise in divorces since Covid-19
theAsianparent: Have you noticed a rise in divorces since Covid-19 hit us?
Mr Lim: There is definitely an increase in enquiries for divorce since Covid-19. However, we also see the hesitation in clients actually filing for divorce. The reason for this is simple – Divorce can be expensive.
During this Covid period, many households are affected by a drop in income and loss of jobs.
For those most likely to have lost their jobs or suffer a loss of income during the current pandemic, they cannot afford to divorce now. Couples may wish to split up, but not be able to afford to do so right now.
theAsianparent: What has been the primary concern for couples who decided to separate during the pandemic?
Mr Lim: The primary concern is the same whether the pandemic existed or not – it is whether their children can cope with the separation or divorce and whether their finances can hold up.
theAsianparent: Divorce is a sensitive subject, what’s your advice to couples who have decided to separate and ways to break the news to family and kids?
Mr Lim: Telling your kids about your divorce is no easy task. Sooner or later, you’ll need to have the conversation. It will probably be the most difficult talk you’ve ever had with them.
Here are some important tips:
- Do it together: This is a task that both parents should do together. This is one time when it is critical that you show the children a united front.
- No place for blame: Make sure that the children are clear that the divorce was not caused by anything that they did or did not do or that one parent is to be blamed. Avoid the blame game at all costs.
- We’re still a family: Simply put, divorce means that Mum and Dad won’t be husband and wife anymore but we will all always be a family and we will always be Mum and Dad to you.
- The future: Tell them they get to spend an equal amount of time with both parents.
theAsianparent: What is your focus when handling divorce cases?
Mr Lim: Family cases are special in nature. People come to see us to rearrange their most private and intimate family affairs.
In Singapore, the family courts are moving towards Therapeutic Justice (TJ).
TJ is the study of the role of law as a therapeutic agent. It views the law as a social force that may produce therapeutic (i.e. helpful) or anti-therapeutic (i.e. harmful) consequences.
As family lawyers, we practice TJ by trying our best to ensure that the litigation is done in an amicable manner.
At all times, we try to avoid conflict and unnecessary legal battles. At PKWA law, our divorce lawyers’ goal is to help our clients reach an agreement that protects their family and children, and help parties to adjust to new lives apart.
Gender playing a role in divorces
theAsianparent: Does gender play any role when it comes to handling a divorce case. What has been the generic pattern in most cases?
Mr Lim: We have been asked this question many times. At PKWA Law, we get both men and women seeking divorce advice.
Speaking as a male divorce lawyer, I have come across many divorced male clients who tell me that the Women’s Charter is biased against them.
There are several reasons why some men believe that divorce laws are against them, although as you can see below, many of these reasons are not valid.
- Let’s start with the most obvious. The statute that governs divorce laws is called the “Women’s Charter.” The name suggests that the law is pro-women.
- Secondly, there is this impression that in children custody issues, the woman will invariably get custody of the children.
- Thirdly, although the Women’s Charter now allows for men to claim maintenance, it is allowed only in limited situations. The norm in divorce cases is still that the men are the one who has to pay maintenance.
- Fourth, there is the impression that women are always entitled to at least half of the men’s assets in a divorce.
Men’s rights during divorce in Singapore
theAsianparent: What are the husband’s rights in a divorce?
Mr Lim: Many male clients are pleasantly surprised when I tell them that men divorce laws in Singapore are gender-neutral. Let me explain how the divorce laws of Singapore provide an equal, fair and balanced approach to both sexes.
Understanding the history of The Women’s Charter in Singapore
The Women’s Charter was enacted way back in 1961. Back then, men could have several wives. Women did not have the right to keep their maiden names.
In the historical context, the Women’s Charter was an appropriate name back then as it provided women with the fundamental rights that were not available then.
In short, the Women’s Charter was borne out of a need to protect the rights of women. There is nothing anti-male about the Women’s Charter once you understand its historical context.
Fault is not a factor in ancillary matters
Just based on my clients’ profile, more women than men initiate divorce because the men are alleged to have behaved unreasonably.
Singapore divorce laws do not ‘penalise’ the party who has caused the marriage to break up. When it comes to the division of matrimonial assets or maintenance, the Singapore courts do not base their decision on who was at fault.
Division of matrimonial assets
There is no presumption that matrimonial assets are divided 50-50. Rather, Singapore divorce laws take into account both the direct and indirect contributions are made to the marriage by the husband and wife.
The Singapore courts have consistently said that their primary objective is to treat both husband and wife fairly. Accordingly, under Singapore law, the court will order the division of matrimonial assets in a “just and equitable manner.”
This means that the division of assets will be done in a fair and just manner.
Where the marriage is short, the courts sometimes divide the assets in the manner of parties’ direct contributions to the assets.
Custody of children
In Singapore, the norm is to award “joint custody” of children to both husband and wife. Joint custody means that both parents are co-decision makers in the areas of choice of religion, schools and medical care for the children.
It is not the practice of the courts to award sole custody to the women.
When it comes to “care and control”, there is no presumption that women will always win. Indeed, the Women’s Charter makes it clear that the courts guiding principle in deciding care and control is “the welfare of the child.”
Thus, if the mother is unfit, care and control will go to the father.
Naturally, if both father and mother are good parents, but the mother has been the main caregiver, the welfare principle dictates that care and control will go to the mother.
Recently, the Singapore courts are encouraging parties to have “shared” care and control.
As you can see, there is really no basis that children custody issues are weighted in favour of women.
There is also no presumption that a divorced woman is automatically entitled to maintenance. There is no such presumption. Men and women are treated equally under Singapore divorce law.
Singapore is one of the best places to have a divorce case decided. The court system is fair, and cases are heard very quickly. The fundamental principle is that both men and women are treated equally under Singapore divorce law, and the court’s decision making is based on what is fair and equitable, not on gender.
theAsianparent: Do you have a life philosophy that guides your law practice?
Mr Lim: My core purpose is to provide excellent legal services to our clients, but my philosophy is that superior legal services alone are not enough. Our philosophy is enshrined in our website which reads:
30 years of serving the heartlands
Mr Lim: We have been proudly serving Singaporeans and residents here for the last 30 years. We remind ourselves that we have to answer the core question, “Why are we practising law?”
At PKWA Law, I believe that we should always:
- Help families overcome their differences and put their lives back on track.
- Empower our clients and help them rebuild their lives.
- Make sure our fees are clear and transparent.
My philosophy captures my passion for the practice of law and reminds me of why I do this day in and day out.
theAsianparent: How has been the experience of running your own law firm?
Mr Lim: Challenging and interesting. We have a law firm of over 130 staff and lawyers, and we have clients from banks to individuals. We have to ensure that we are always doing a good job, fair in our dealings with our clients and our fees are clear and affordable.
This article was first published in theAsianparent.