1. The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) and Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) have concluded our assessment of all the feedback received, via a six-week- long public consultation, on the recommendations submitted by the Committee to Review and Enhance Reforms in the Family Justice System (RERF Committee) in September 2019. There was wide support for many of the recommendations, especially in the areas of early support for couples facing divorce, and enhancements to the family justice system.
2. The Ministries have accepted the recommendations from the RERF Committee, and will work with the Family Justice Courts, Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) and other legal and social sector partners to look into the implementation of relevant enhancements, taking into account the public's feedback and suggestions. This will contribute to a more effective family justice system and a more robust ecosystem of support for families.
3. MinLaw and MSF would like to thank the RERF Committee for their recommendations, and stakeholders and members of the public for their feedback during the public consultation period. A summary of the feedback is below. See Annex A for the background of the RERF Committee and Annex B for its recommendations.
Summary of Feedback
4. MinLaw and MSF held a public consultation from 20 September to 1 November 2019 on the RERF Committee's recommendations, and received responses from members of the public and from stakeholders in the legal and social sectors, such as the Law Society, PPIS (Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura) and AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research). Overall, feedback was supportive of the RERF Committee's recommendations.
Feedback on strengthening upstream pre-divorce support for couples
5. There was generally positive public feedback on the introduction of a consolidated online platform to provide pre-filing support for couples contemplating divorce. Many respondents also supported enhancements to the Mandatory Parenting Programme, as well as pre-action counselling and mediation.
a. Addressing emotional needs: Respondents agreed that these initiatives would help individuals address their emotional needs and reduce acrimony from the outset.
b. Addressing financial matters: The legal sector was concerned that introducing the topic of financial matters at the pre-filing stage would be premature. They also raised concerns on the difficulty of providing personalised financial assessment through an online platform, due to the complexity of the cases and the skills required to make the appropriate assessment. On the other hand, the social sector was supportive, as this recommendation would help parties plan for post-divorce finances. MSF notes that DSSA counsellors are trained by Credit Counselling Singapore (CCS) to provide basic budgetary guidance. Clients with more complex needs (e.g. with large outstanding debts) will be referred to CCS for professional advice on financial matters and debt repayment plans.
6. There was also positive feedback on the building up of social sector capabilities in divorce support. A number of respondents stressed the importance of equipping divorce support professionals with financial counselling skills to help divorcing parties plan for post-divorce finances.
Feedback on certification and accreditation of family law practitioners
7. There was varied feedback on the recommendations for a certification programme and specialist accreditation scheme for family law practitioners. Some respondents felt that the proposals would help avoid lengthy litigation and hence reduce acrimony and costs of divorce. Others felt the existing educational framework for lawyers was sufficient, and that certification and accreditation would increase costs and barriers to entry to practise family law. It should be highlighted that there are no plans to make certification or accreditation mandatory at this point. The views of the Law Society, including its desire to be involved at the working committee level to develop both the certification and accreditation schemes, will be taken on board.
Feedback on enhancements to the family justice system
8. Respondents generally supported the recommendations to enhance the family justice system. The legal sector however, expressed reservations or made further suggestions on specific recommendations.
9. On the judge-led approach, some respondents felt that paper hearings (i.e. hearings without the need for parties or their counsel to attend) may diminish the lawyer's ability to effectively resolve cases. The Ministries note that the court's power to conduct paper hearings is not new. Only suitable cases or certain procedural applications may proceed this way. Lawyers would still have to prepare effective submissions in paper hearings. Paper hearings will also reduce costs for litigants and allow counsel to focus their time on more complex and substantive matters. If necessary, the court can still convene a physical hearing or direct reply submissions to be filed.
10. Feedback was also mixed on judicial interviewing of children. As the RERF Committee noted in its report, judicial interviewing of children is not new. The recommendation does not oblige the judge to interview the child but clarifies that such interviews are within the discretion of the judge, in consideration of the child's welfare. Given that orders on living arrangements and contact with the respective parents will affect the child, it is important to hear from the child directly in some instances. Judicial interviews should remain an important option within the family justice system.
Feedback on more protection for persons without mental capacity and more support for their caregivers
11. Feedback received on the recommendations to strengthen the mental capacity ecosystem was largely positive. Respondents agreed with the need for training to help deputies understand their role and equip them with the confidence to effectively carry out their responsibilities, and increase accessibility of such training programmes to benefit more deputies. There were suggestions for online training to complement existing classroom workshops, training materials to be in the vernacular languages, and the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) to collaborate with stakeholders such as the Community Development Councils, Silver Generation Ambassadors and Community Clubs in organising the training. Regarding concerns with affordability of the training, MSF would like to clarify that OPG offers free training for deputies.
12. Respondents also supported the proposal for counselling and mediation services for disputing families and distressed caregivers, and provided suggestions. MSF will consider the respondents' concerns and suggestions when implementing the recommendations. On the recommendation for counselling at clients' homes, this would be subject to the counsellor's assessment on a case-by-case basis. For dispute counselling, it may be more appropriate to offer counselling at a neutral venue, so as not to compromise the therapeutic relationship between the counsellor and the clients.
13. Other areas of feedback are at Annex C.
14. The Ministries will consider these suggestions when implementing the recommendations.
MINISTRY OF LAW AND MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT
24 FEBRUARY 2020