Ease sting of divorce for family's sake

It is a pity that few divorcing couples are choosing to resolve their marital issues amicably, even though legal avenues to do so are available now.

These options do not necessarily make divorce easier. Instead, they aim to help couples - who have decided to go their separate ways - to reduce the emotional trauma of divorce, especially when it weighs on children, and also to cut down legal costs.

State courts and lawyers' groups are working together to make these options available, whether in the form of private mediation, collaboration or negotiation.

There are even provisions for families who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. New structures have been created to tap the expertise of family lawyers, counsellors, financial advisers and child specialists. The goal is a settlement in the best interests of all the parties, including children, without the need for a lengthy, costly and often bruising court battle.

Yet in 2013, fewer than 40 couples chose from the three non-adversarial approaches on offer. Sadly, that figure is a tiny fraction of the 7,500 couples who filed for divorce or annulments that year.

Lack of awareness has been cited as a factor but the mindset of divorcing couples is another hurdle. Too many couples are after revenge, according to Singapore Mediation Centre executive director Loong Seng Onn. Family and close friends ought to help them see that vengeance is a double-edged sword that hurts all involved, including innocents.

Much more is to be gained by making pre-court settlements the norm as divorce rates in Singapore rise, in line with trends in other developed countries. US researchers have consistently found that high levels of parental conflict during and after a divorce hamper the adjustment children have to make.

The social costs of divorce might then multiply and be passed on to the next generation.

Against this backdrop, judicial efforts to take on an activist role in helping to resolve family disputes are to be commended. The new Family Justice Court requires all divorcing couples with children below age 21 to undergo counselling.

Since most divorce cases still end in litigation, it's useful to empower judges to limit the number of affidavits filed by each side. That can help shorten the process and reduce the pain of having personal details dredged out and aired in court.

The legal fraternity and the community as a whole must help more couples to choose non-combative approaches to divorce.

Given the vagaries of relationships, one can expect divorce to be a sad but continuing fact of life here.

The pragmatic response would be to mend what's partly broken and end what cannot be mended in level-headed ways.

This article was first published on May 27, 2015.
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