6 November 2017
Mr Mr Seah Kian Peng
MP for Marine Parade GRC
To ask the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) whether the Ministry will consider alternative resolution methods for family conflicts and how the fallout and repair of family relationships can be better managed for better child and family outcomes; and (b) how will the Ministry proactively and pre-emptively help couples build strong marriages and families.
1. Family conflicts and disputes can have long lasting impact and consequences on families. Children are particularly vulnerable.
2. Several types of family conflicts and issues go before the courts, such as divorce, maintenance, child custody matters, family violence, and youth offending. With our rapidly greying population, we also expect to see more family disputes over mental capacity deputyship and doneeship issues.
Brief background of the Committee for Family Justice
3. In July 2014, the Committee for Family Justice recommended a number of changes to the family justice system. The focus was on reducing acrimony in family proceedings, and ensuring that the interests of children were better looked after. Amongst other things, the Committee recommended that a judge-led approach be taken when adjudicating family disputes. Their recommendations culminated in the introduction of the Family Justice Act and the establishment of the Family Justice Courts.
4. The Committee also recommended a more robust and integrated network of community assistance and support, which led to the establishment of divorce support specialist agencies, or DSSAs. Today, MSF has set up 4 DSSAs, which are run by VWOs.
Other Appropriate Family Conflict Resolution Methods
5. In terms of reducing the adversarial nature of family disputes, the adoption of the judge-led approach, and the child-centric focus in the Family Justice Courts, are significant steps in the right direction. However, the fact remains that resolution of the dispute is still being sought through the courts. Court-based litigation is inherently adversarial, costly and procedurally complex. Research tells us that taking a "family" problem to court can increase mistrust between the parties, reduce the likelihood of durable settlement, and stoke more litigation if parental and family conflict is prolonged.
6. We therefore need to consider if there are other appropriate, multi-disciplinary methods to resolve family conflict which can reduce the adversarial nature of litigation. At the same time, while mediation and counselling have been used as a core dispute resolution mechanism for some years, we want to see how it can be extended even further.
Restorative and Therapeutic Justice
7. The concept of Restorative Justice is usually thought of in the context of criminal justice, between offender and victim. It is an approach that emphasizes the need to repair the harm that is done, and restore relationships that have been damaged. It can take place when offenders who have caused the harm, reach a point when they fully, freely and genuinely admit their actions and are willing to take responsibility for them.
8. However, the core elements of restorative justice, principally the healing of relationships, re-opening channels of communication, and empowering individuals to take active responsibility to repair the harm done, can potentially be applied to family conflicts. It can help to keep the focus on restoring family functionality through repairing family relationships.
9. Therapeutic justice focuses on the impact of the law and the legal system on emotional life and psychological well-being. It recognises that the law is a social force that can encourage certain behaviours and lead to certain consequences. Therapeutic justice involves seeing whether the law can be made or applied in a more therapeutic way so long as other values, such as justice and due process, can be fully respected.
10. A stronger emphasis on restorative and therapeutic justice in family dispute resolution should see approaches such as counselling, mediation and conciliation being moved to the forefront. It holds out the hope that we can foster space for family members to deliberate and explore options, while having time to manage their emotions and adjust and come to terms with new or altered personal circumstances. Families should avail themselves to the suite of help services, and not rush into commencing legal proceedings. When families find a way to repair or reach a new equilibrium in their relationships, it should also translate into durable agreements and long term settlements. Importantly, children who are often the innocent victims of family conflict can benefit from a return to functioning family relationships, even if the family structure has been altered through say, a divorce.
Announcement of the new Committee
11. In this regard, MSF, MinLaw and the Family Justice Courts will be setting up a joint committee to study how we can further enhance the family law regime and explore multi-disciplinary methods of family dispute resolution. The Committee will also examine how the concepts of restorative and therapeutic justice can be applied more extensively in the context of family dispute resolution. This new Committee will start work by the end of this year, and will headed by the Permanent Secretaries of both Ministries, together with the Presiding Judge of FJC. It will comprise representatives from the social services, legal practice, judiciary, academia and the Government.
12. We look forward to receiving the Committee's recommendations in due course as we work towards creating a holistic and restorative family justice ecosystem.
Continued efforts to strengthen marriages and families
13. The Honourable Member also asked how MSF encourages strong marriages and families. We work with community partners to offer a range of marriage support and enrichment programmes for couples, at different stages of their married life. In addition, the Families for Life Council organises events such as the annual Marriage Convention and Family 365 workshops, which cover topics such as marriage, family life and personal life.
14. MSF remains committed to promoting and funding such programmes. We encourage couples and families to take part in these programmes and to pro-actively make full use of community resources which are available to them, so as to strengthen family and marital relationships all through life.