Low take-up rate for schemes to help divorcing couples

JUST 19 divorcing couples sought private mediation about their settlements last year.

And only seven cases were completed under the Collaborative Family Practice (CFP), a scheme launched in 2013 to offer couples specialist legal help with post-divorce issues, such as child custody, before they go to court.

The Primary Justice Project - a pre-court option for divorcing couples ineligible for legal aid, but unable to afford legal fees - has handled just a dozen divorce cases since its launch last May.

The low take-up numbers were revealed yesterday by the Family Justice Courts and Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC), which runs the first two schemes. A third is run by the Community Justice Centre, an independent charity based in the State Courts.

Latest available figures show there were more than 7,500 divorces and annulments in 2013.

Mediation experts called for greater awareness of the help options available, and urged couples to resolve disputes amicably to save time and money.

However, SMC executive director Loong Seng Onn said the figures could be down to couples who "simply want revenge". He added:

"They want to drag the other party through the court process because of what their former spouse did to them."

With private mediation, cases are often resolved within a day. It can help in matters such as financial, property and child custody before they get to court.

Yet, take-up of this option has shown little improvement since 2010, when there were just eight cases settled.

Under the CFP, if an agreement is reached, the courts can grant the interim judgment in one to two months, instead of four to six.

But awareness of the three options is so low that even some lawyers are not familiar with them.

Ms Sophia Ang, director of counselling and psychological services at Family Justice Courts, said: "If you're having a happy marriage... very few people would bother to go read up on what mediation is about.

"It is when you're in a conflict, things get really bad and you're desperate, wondering what to do and where to go."

Lawyers say agreeing on issues before going to court reduces acrimony.

Mr Loong said: "Litigation in court is an adversarial process. Both parties have to persuade the judge to decide in their favour. But in the pre-court options, the aim is to enter an agreement with the other party to settle matters."

Family lawyer Michelle Woodworth, of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing, cited how the CFP scheme benefited one couple.

Instead of focusing on the break-up itself, they discussed issues such as the division of assets and care of their children. Focusing on these issues helped the husband, who did not initiate the divorce, to be more "emotionally ready", Ms Woodworth said, whereas these problems would have been tougher to negotiate in court.

Mr Loong added: "It's important to let parties know how they can resolve their disputes without affecting the children. Marriages may die, but parenting will continue."


This article was first published on May 19, 2015.
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