Family lawyers are 'first responders'
Chief Justice emphasises need to reduce conflict and put child's welfare first in divorce
The family justice process starts when a lawyer is approached by a potential client whose personal life and family life are falling apart.
As the "first port of call", the lawyer has a "tremendous opportunity" to influence the way the client approaches his dispute, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon.
Speaking at the Family Justice Practice Forum yesterday, he said: "In other areas of litigation, conflict is necessary - even helpful - to the process of getting to the issues.
"But in family justice, we prioritise the welfare of the child as a core tenet. And because of this, the reduction of conflict becomes critical."
Apart from children, Singapore's vulnerable population also includes the growing numbers of elderly individuals and those with mental illnesses.
"Lawyers are the best first responders in this landscape of special needs and of different types of vulnerabilities. It is the lawyer who comes into contact with the parties well before the court does," he said.
It is crucial that lawyers understand the responsibilities and opportunities this presents, he added.
He said that globally, there has been a growing awareness that family lawyers need to work with the objective of achieving outcomes beneficial to all and not just their clients.
To do so, family lawyers can advise clients to cooperate with the other party unless there are safety concerns, and lawyers can also practise preventive lawyering.
"For example, they could consciously time the filing of a writ for divorce so as to avoid surprise that might lead to unnecessary spousal conflict and emotional harm to children," he said.
Yesterday's forum was held at the Supreme Court and attended by family lawyers.
The Chief Justice added that if there are underlying needs and issues, lawyers should also refer clients to appropriate avenues - be it therapists, mental health professionals, co-parenting or anger management classes, family service centres or government agencies.
He also outlined recent changes within family justice to help bring out long-term resolution of disputes.
These include the 2014 Child Representative scheme, where lawyers on a panel are appointed to speak to those in a child's life and give the child a voice in court.
Since October 2014, representatives have been appointed in 24 cases.
Another is the mandatory mediation and counselling for cases involving children under 21. In 2014, 75 per cent of those cases achieved full resolution while in 2015, 77 per cent did.
Looking to the future, the Chief Justice said that care for the aged can give rise to complex issues to do with the mental capacity law, such as in the case of tour guide Yang Yin and his misappropriation of an elderly widow's monies.
Another area of complexity is the growing international dimension of family work.
In the past three years, about 40 per cent of divorce cases each year involved a foreigner and a third of those cases involved a child under 21.
"These cases raise a number of cross-border concerns including enforcement, relocation and custody issues," he said.
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin also delivered a speech at yesterday's forum.
He said that while divorcing parties are expected to transition out of the legal system after proceedings conclude and move on with their lives, "the reality is not quite so simple".
"The emotional and financial impact of marital breakdown and divorce will remain as former spouses begin the process of unravelling their shared lives," he said.
Lawyers, he said, can help to advise and make the situation better.
He said: "The question we need to ask ourselves is this - are we peacemakers or fermenters of conflict?"
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