Easing the pain of divorce

SINGAPORE - Every week, some 140 unhappy couples divorce each other.

Every day, thousands of them stay under the same roof - bickering, despising each other, but unable to part ways - while their cases drag on in court.

Most cases are resolved within a year. But some can stretch for up to 10 years - and the emotional price that the couples and their children have to pay can be extreme.

"Sometimes, the children are caught right in between, as some parents quarrel in front them," said family lawyer Lee Terk Yang.

Soon, the divorce process will be faster and simpler, but many lawyers say that this alone may not resolve the complicated issues involved in the break-up of a family.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam revealed recently that the Family Justice Committee wants proceedings to be less adversarial, with each party submitting a one-page document instead of extensive affidavits, and the judge playing a more proactive role in the proceedings.

"It is always good, particularly in cases involving young children, to speed up the process such that parties can obtain finality with regard to their legal position and move on with their lives," said Johnson Loo, a director at Drew & Napier.

But he cautioned that in speeding up the process, people should not come away with the concern that their cases have been unduly rushed or they haven't been properly heard.

The current adversarial system has been putting a strain on the system, with the number of divorces rising more than four times since 1980 to 7,237 in 2012.

However, the quicker, new system might bring its own challenges.

"Divorce can then be a convenient exit for the couple. They may opt out without taking due consideration of the impact on the children," said Samuel Ng, chief executive of Montfort Care.

But what makes sense is doing away with irrelevant issues and going straight to the crux of the matter, said family lawyer Louis Lim.

Judges may also have to play a more central role, and this has raised some concerns.

"The judges will have a heavier workload. They will no longer just be the adjudicator but have to take on the roles of mediator and counsellor as well," said lawyer Linda Ong.

Dealing directly with the battling parties, who may be seething with anger at each other, would probably call for more training of judges, said family law practitioner Ellen Lee.

Because, despite Mr Shanmugam's comment about taking the anger out of the equation, it remains at the core of the problem "especially when one or both of the spouses take the view that they have been wronged", said Randolph Khoo, director at Drew & Napier.

"It is anger that led to the divorce in the first place," said Mr Lim.

At heart, divorces remain a messy business in which the entire family suffers.

In one case, a four-year-old girl, who was especially close to her father, tried to kill herself once she learnt that her parents did not plan to stay together. The parents eventually dropped the case and, 20 years on, they are still married.

Other wounds run even deeper. Mr Loo said the worst is when one of the parents manipulates children against the other after a divorce and the kids grow up maladjusted.

That's why, even if the divorce is speeded up, the counselling process should take its time, said Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director of youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.


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