Ideas to improve family justice system

SINGAPORE - Equip the police and teachers with multi-disciplinary skills. Rely more on non-adversarial processes like mediation and counselling. Give judges a more active role in the running of a trial.

These are the crux of broad changes, aimed at improving the handling of family disputes here, which are being looked into by the recently formed Family Justice Committee. Co-chaired by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah, it will soon do a public consultation on its ideas.

"What we must ultimately aim for is an ecosystem in which we will hear clearly the voice of the child so that the child's best interests are appropriately addressed," Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said on Friday.

"(In this ecosystem), disputes and differences are resolved in a sensible and non-technical manner with a measure of heart, compassion and sympathy."

Speaking at the first Family Justice Practice Forum, he outlined some of the committee's ideas to about 300 people from various institutions including government ministries, voluntary welfare organisations and law firms.

The family justice system, noted Chief Justice Menon, is the "key institution" which advances broader public goals beyond adjudicating on private rights and interests. This includes protecting the welfare of any children who may be affected by a marriage on the rocks, for example, or any other vulnerable persons.

He said the court's role in community life is "pivotal" and has grown as more families seek redress through the justice system in light of recent economic and social trends. Last year, for example, there were roughly four times as many marriages as divorces - 27,936 versus 7,237. In 1980, there were 13 marriages for every divorce.

CJ Menon said the changes envisioned by the committee will focus on resolution and closure, and the welfare of the parties and any affected children, while also aiming to lower legal costs.

For a start, the various "touch-points" that litigants seek help from will be strengthened by providing relevant skills and knowledge for parties such as the police, religious organisations or social welfare agencies, he said.

Second, he said, a "suitable dispute resolution pathway" might be more appropriate for family disputes, which may require earlier intervention by social workers and counsellors.

And when a court battle is unavoidable, the committee hopes to adopt a "judge-directed" process while encouraging lawyers to be trained in aspects of social work, counselling and mediation and acquire a deeper knowledge of family law. This involves the judge helping litigants to focus on the right issues and calling for specific evidence and witnesses in trial.

For the changes to work, CJ Menon noted that "continuing conversations" among associated stakeholders such as the Ministry of Social and Family Development, social workers and lawyers would be "crucial".

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