Panel moots ways to make divorce less adversarial

Panel moots ways to make divorce less adversarial

SINGAPORE - The civil divorce process could be simplified significantly and made less adversarial as part of an overhaul of Singapore's family justice system.

Among the proposed measures which Law Minister K. Shanmugam hopes to pass into law by year-end is for judges to take a more central, proactive role in divorce proceedings.

This will enable divorces to be dealt with "very quickly, and with the least amount of stress for parties and their children", said Mr Shanmugam yesterday.

Thick affidavits and convoluted documents may also no longer be necessary, added the minister at a dialogue with 150 National University of Singapore Society members.

He explained that divorce involves only three issues.

The first, is whether the marriage has broken down. This, he said, is "usually quite clear" by the time lawyers are consulted.

The second, and most important issue, is how best children can be taken care of.

The final issue is the division of assets and how much maintenance should be paid.

"These things, if you think about it, are capable of being settled by each side filing a one-page document, and the judge taking control of the matter and deciding with counsellors what is in the best interest of the children."

Any deep-seated anger between parties is irrelevant to these three matters, added Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister.

"When one side makes an allegation, the other side has to counter, and then you get affidavits of very little utility in terms of resolving the three issues."

This would make matters worse because "whatever little possibility of reconciliation or taking care of the children together goes by the time all these allegations are put in black and white".

The children, too, would suffer as they are forced to take sides, he said.

He added that the measures recommended by the Family Justice Committee aim to make divorces "less adversarial" and called the proposed system "much more sensible".

The committee, co-chaired by Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah and Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah, was formed last year to look into simplifying court procedures, better protecting children and reducing legal costs.

It was set up in the wake of climbing divorce rates, from 1,721 cases in 1980 to 7,237 - a more than fourfold increase - in 2012.

The committee referenced family justice models adopted in the US and Australia in coming up with the proposals.

The proposed changes have been lauded by social workers and divorce lawyers.

Ms Shelen Ang, of Focus on the Family Singapore, said it gives a "more humane touch" to families in need of help as couples would be aided in settling disputes amicably and in how to co-parent if children are involved.

Mr Koh Tien Hua, who co-heads Harry Elias Partnership's family and matrimonial law practice, called the transformation of the court system "a step in the right direction". "But the judges as well as other stakeholders must be properly trained to perform their respective roles."

The recommendations will be put up for public consultation "soon", although a Law Ministry spokesman declined to indicate a timeline.

This article was published on April 17 in The Straits Times.

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