Closing Remarks by Senior Minister of State for Law Ms Indranee Rajah SC at the Family Justice Seminar
19 May 2014 Posted in Speeches
First let me thank all of you today, for taking the time for this seminar. As you can see from the discussion and the presentations, this is not a small effort. It’s actually quite a huge undertaking. And it’s clearly not just about the law or the legal system, it’s about every interface, every touch point that touches the family. About a year and a half ago we did the Our Singapore Conversations and one of the very clear themes that emerged from that was how important the family is to Singaporeans – it is really the foundational bedrock of our society, and people anchor themselves on family. So when the family breaks down, and something goes wrong, people get set adrift and it creates an impact on them. And if they have to go through a breakdown of the marriage and have a fight over the children, it affects people in very detrimental and dramatic ways. And what we’re actually doing is not just about the courts or the legal system it’s really about how you would touch people’s lives and enable them to move on from what’s happening.
Just now Teong Liang (Mr Yap Teong Liang) mentioned Frozen, and you know in every primary 1 class now, you mention that song to them, all the kids can sing the words, and he talked about how you identify with the children and so on. In Frozen, there is a lesson for the families because as the line in the refrain goes “Let it go”. And sometimes they can’t let it go. And in family disputes we’re trying to teach them how to resolve this and then move on. So you can see from the framework of the interim recommendations that we’ve identified certain key areas. One is the community support and solutions and the touch points and the interface. And that is the first brush that people have with what to do when the marriage breaks down or when there’s a family dispute and for that we really need everybody on board, we need to pick out the problems as early as possible, we’ve to intervene as an appropriate stage and make sure that the families receive the help that they need.
Then you’ve also got resourcing, we’ve got to be able to build up the different groups of professionals with relevant expertise in the various fields- the social work part, the psychology, the counselling, and we want to house them within centralized specialist agencies and we want to spread these agencies across the island in key community nodes. Because access is very important – if people can’t get access then it’s as good as having no help at all. As this has been brought up in the course of the discussion, they need information, and in very many cases they need non-legal advice, but sometimes they need the legal advice as well. The end-to-end case management which Justice Rajah mentioned, counselling, family dispute management, and programmes which are catered to the unique needs of the families facing divorce and family violence issues. So the whole slew, the whole package is something that we are looking at, and I think it will make a real difference if we do it right.
So today we’ve got three specialist agencies specializing in family violence cases but of course we want to build on this concept to address the broader divorce-related issues. And hence the recommendation for the specialist agencies for divorce support and family violence.
And then of course we’ve got the courts. And this is very important because the courts really are for many of them, their first experience with law as an institution, and law as a regulatory role in their lives. And how they come away from the whole experience, colours their whole view of society, colours their view of how justice system works, colours their view of what’s fair and not fair and in terms of what they’ve encountered. So you also want to make this about making sure that people feel that they have come away from it, having been dealt with fairly.
Today, we’ve got a system which works but with all the feedback that we’ve got, there’s room for improvement. The parties present their own claims, they present their own evidence, they cross examine the other sides, witnesses, this is the adversarial approach, which is common to all other types of civil suit. But the feedback that we’ve received is that the existing court processes may aggravate conflict and impede resolution because sometimes they are not constructive for everybody and can also be tiring, not just for the lawyers. I still remember a case where I had a client who became very upset because she had painted her little girl’s fingernails and she had sent off the girl for access to her husband whose new girlfriend had promptly taken off the nail polish and painted on new nail polish for the little girl. Now, this has nothing to do with the law at all, it’s not a legal issue, but can you imagine the kind of emotional tug of war that is going on there, the kind of anger and frustration that builds up. Of course all this, appears in the affidavit but we try to take it out, but the client insisted that it has to be mentioned, and all this kind of things just don’t help towards trying to have that healing process. And it causes the parties to lose sight of the best interest of the children.
And so, the Committee in looking at this kind of things went back to basics and we had to think about how things could be improved.
And for that reason we engaged a wide range of stakeholders. And as Justice Rajah mentioned, looked at best practices from Australia, Germany and the UK.
- So underpinning our recommendations for changes to the courts system are these principles:
- Families should be saved, as far as possible, and disputes should only be brought before the court only as the last resort.
- If the marriage has irretrievably broken down and the family ends up in the court system, then we do not want the court process to worsen the anguish that the family is already undergoing.
- So this is not about making divorces easier. What it is about is recognising that not all marriages can be saved, and helping such families move on with as little emotional trauma and scarring as possible.
- The Committee also considered how the court structure and processes can be improved to achieve these objectives. And as you saw just now our thinking is this:
- The Judge must be at the centre of the process.
- He must be empowered to lead and control the pace and direction of each case, in a manner that’s tailored to the needs and sensitivities of each family.
- The Judge can then assess if there is still room for the matter to be resolved amicably with some additional help. We should let him decide whether options such as mediation or counselling should be made available.
- So in short, we will be proposing that we strengthen the court infrastructure by:
- Introducing a unified specialist family court system to hear all family cases;
- Simplifying and streamlining court processes;
- Improving case management processes;
- Specially training lawyers to deal with family disputes more holistically;
- Helping parties to navigate the court system, e.g. filling in court forms.
- The initiatives which Ms Valerie Thean spoke about in her presentation will build on this new framework.
- Where and how do lawyers fit in within this new framework?
- Well as Mr Yap Teong Liang mentioned lawyers do and can have a tremendous influence on the various cases presented in court. He also spoke about the benefits to family lawyers of obtaining the Family Law Practitioner (“FLP”) accreditation, and how this can enhance their ability to play a role in the new court system.
- On this, I would just like to say that, the whole idea is that the accreditation system is not supposed to shut people out but it is supposed to enhance and build a family lawyer’s expertise. And that’s what we really want to do so, hopefully over time, people will look at the person with the accreditation and say, “Okay, this reassures me that the person will be able to approach family law case in a way that’s helpful to me” and the idea really is that it’s not purely about the legal part, you also need to have that ability to help the person to get over this hump. All those things are complimentary to the legal skills that you already have, so there’s no change to the lawyer’s role in assisting the court to arrive at a fair, just, and balanced decision.
- In fact, you will play an even more important role, because you are going to be trying to reduce the acrimony between the parties and bring this to a happier ending than otherwise may have been the case.
- Then of course putting the child at the forefront and protecting the best interests of the child that is the other aspect that has been touched on, I don’t need to go through all of that. You can see from what we have outlined today that we have put in quite a great deal of thought in terms of having a practical system and how to make it work because you also don’t want something where you have all the nice theory and all the nice philosophy behind it but you cannot actually make it work on the ground and that is something we are very anxious to avoid having an interesting theoretical construct but not actually something that is truly effective that makes a real impact on people’s lives and so a lot of thinking went behind that.
- I just want to thank everybody who gave their input and helped us to come up with these recommendations. For the other topics that have not be dealt with, in the interim recommendations, have no fear, they are very much on the radar, as you have heard, maintenance of course, is one such issue and enforcement, HDB housing, as well, that is an extremely important part of it and all the thoughts and viewpoints were given today will be taken into account.
- And so, just let me conclude, once again by thanking everybody and saying that we are actually involved in a very exciting project and a tremendous thing if we can get this through, and it is only part one, so there is much more yet to be done. Hopefully, at the end of it, we would have done something tremendously worthwhile.
- Thank you very much.
Last updated on 20 May 2014