The Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon
JC Valerie Thean, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts
Mr Gregory Vijayendran, President of The Law Society of Singapore
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. It is an honour to be a part of this 4th Family Justice Practice Forum. I am encouraged to see that we have in the audience, family practitioners from various sectors who continue to engage and learn from one another ways to better assist the families you work with.
2. With the rising numbers of divorce, the Courts have increasingly become a critical point of interaction and intervention for families and individuals. Parties are however expected to transition out of the legal system once proceedings have concluded and move on with their lives.
3. Yet, we all know that reality is not quite simple. It doesn’t work that way. The emotional and financial impact of marital breakdown and divorce will remain, as former spouses begin the process of unravelling their shared lives. As we saw in the video earlier, where children are involved, parents will have to learn how to work together in a fluid and evolving parenting relationship, which may be further complicated if either or both parents go on to form new relationships.
4. I asked for the video to be screened because the impact on our children is hugely significant. For some, they can last a lifetime. It is important to hear from the children as well. We have produced various videos, re-enacted, words expressed by children undergoing such traumatic experiences. As lawyers, I believe you can all play a part in helping to advise and ameliorate the situation. The question we need to ask ourselves is this – are we peacemakers or fermenters of conflict? All of us involved in the process can make a difference.
5. The ‘best interests’ principle is at the heart of many of our initiatives and decisions concerning children. It is driven by the desire to ensure the best possible outcomes for innocent children. But what exactly is the ‘best interests of a child’ can mean profoundly different things to the divorcing parties, their lawyers, the social worker, and the child psychologist. It may even be contested between well-intentioned professionals in the same field.
6. Thus, the best possible outcome for a child may not always be achieved if one party insists on their own determination of what is in the child’s best interests. So in this regard, it is also important to recognise and avoid a combative ‘winner-take-all’ mentality in familial disputes. This is not only unhelpful in family law cases, but it also adds to the acrimony and sometimes, irreparable damage.
Vision for the family justice ecosystem
7. How then should the Family Justice Ecosystem 2020 look like? Allow me to share three thoughts with you.
a) First, although they play a unique and critical role, the Courts are not and should not be the sole point of interaction and intervention for troubled families. There are many junctures before, during and after the Court process that help and support can be equally provided to all parties in a dispute, and to ensure the best outcome for the children.
b) Second, a collaborative approach is required in a complex system, where many actors and agents act independently and interact dynamically. Apart from judicial determination of property division and child custody issues, the on-going relational issues between the players cannot be resolved on a purely legal basis. Efforts to de-escalate the conflict before court intervention and support in following through with court orders are also necessary to ensure sustainable outcomes for these families. There may also be safety issues to contemplate where there have been allegations and concerns of family violence. As such, an interdisciplinary and multi-agency ecosystem is paramount.
c) Third, a different mindset and skillset are required by family practitioners to achieve the best outcomes for their clients and the children that are caught-in-between. This could be through efforts to de-escalate potential conflicts and reduce acrimony throughout proceedings. Or it could be by helping the parties’ shift the focus away from themselves and to see the situation through the eyes of the child, and understand the impact the proceedings has on the child.
(A) MSF collaboration with FJC within the eco-system
8. MSF and the Courts have enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship and I am tremendously appreciative of the effort. This has allowed us to better support families with different needs, at various stages of their interactions with the Courts. For families who are facing genuine financial difficulties or who are seeking employment or opportunities for training or reskilling, they can approach any of the social service offices (SSOs) for assistance.
9. It is undisputed that divorces affect families negatively. In our work with the Courts, we are guided by considerations of the welfare of the child and the importance of parents keeping the child’s interest and welfare in mind, when making decisions with respect to their marriage and by extension, the family’s future.
10. Such considerations were what led to the development of the Mandatory Parenting Programme (MPP), a programme which parties who are contemplating divorce will have to attend if they have a child aged fourteen (14) years and below and are unable to agree on all divorce related matters beforehand. MPP is conducted by three divorce support specialist agencies (DSSAs), which are located at various places around the island. We understand that this can be a particularly difficult and emotional time for parties and so if they are uncertain as to whether to go ahead with divorce, the DSSA provides support services and referrals for marital recovery, if necessary. So if possible, we should prevent couples from even reaching that stage.
11. When the Women’s Charter was amended to include MPP, some expressed concerns that it would delay the divorce process. This is not substantiated. That is not the intent. On the contrary, couples who have attended the MPP consultation shared that they found the session informative and beneficial.
12. Allow me to share a story about James, a father of two primary school children who attended a MPP session early this year. He had been feeling very bitter about his wife and in-laws for blocking access to his children after they left the matrimonial home to move to her parents’ house. Whenever he tried to visit the children, there would be shouting episodes, which terrified his 6 year old daughter and caused her to cry incessantly. At the MPP session, James was visibly affected when the counsellor shared how open conflict can adversely strain the parent-child relationship. He decided thereafter to join a fathers’ support group at the DSSA which has given him insights on how to coparent effectively with his ex-wife, and how to be present in his children’s lives, such as through daily Skype calls. The marriage may be over for James but he is striving to be the best dad ever to make the transition less painful for the children.
13. During the course of the legal process, the welfare of the child is best served if acrimony between parties is kept at a minimum. With this in mind, our programmes and initiatives have to reduce the chances of and need for conflict between parties as well as to educate them on how to work together for the benefit of the child. Parties are also encouraged to resolve matters sooner rather than later, and preferably without the need for contested proceedings.
14. We understand that maintenance issues continue to be an area of concern for some parties, even after the divorce has been finalised. For the parent who requires financial contributions from the other towards the child’s upkeep, having to return to Court to enforce a maintenance order can be tedious and frustrating. This is especially so when the other parent has the means to pay, but refuses to do so. We see many of these examples.
15. As such, we worked with the Courts to pilot the Maintenance Record Officer scheme (MRO) scheme in the 2nd half of last year. The MRO scheme had been initiated to assist the court in its fact-finding process by obtaining information on parties’ financial circumstances, and where necessary, to firstly, provide assistance to parties facing genuine hardship and second, to identify recalcitrant defaulters who refuse to pay maintenance even though they can afford it.
16. Where appropriate, the Courts can then impose harsher penalties against recalcitrant defaulters and I hope the Courts do that. We have been evaluating the pilot together with the Courts and recognise that for the MRO to be more effective, he would need to be able to identify applicants and their children who need help early on and render the necessary assistance. As such, we will be introducing an earlier intervention point, at the filing stage, for the MRO to work together with parties.
17. Currently, parties are referred to the MRO after they have been unable to reach a resolution at mediation and are proceeding to a trial. So moving forward, we will be expanding the existing criteria to allow for cases to be referred to the MRO from the 1st enforcement application onwards. In addition, we are also looking to have the MRO included as part of the Court process, to allow judges to direct parties to produce relevant documents to the MRO. MSF and the Courts are working on bringing in the necessary provisions to the Family Justice Rules to formalise this.
18. These initiatives are targeted for implementation by end of this year. They signal our pro-active stance with respect to tackling maintenance-related issues. The Committee for the Establishment of a Child Maintenance Table has also been working hard to develop a child maintenance table, which in due course, will be a valuable and accessible tool which parties, practitioners and the Courts can take reference from with regard to the appropriate quantum of child maintenance.
19. Another area where acrimony between parents has a direct and immediate effect on the children would be in matters concerning the child’s care arrangements. In particularly contested matters, the Courts can direct parties to attend counselling and/or the Children-in-Between programme, which aim to help parents and children better communicate with each other.
20. There are however cases which remain extremely high-conflict and acrimonious throughout the proceedings, and this often carries over even after the final orders have been made. For such cases, we recognise that longer term intervention is required to work with the family to reduce the levels of conflict and hopefully re-establish channels of communication between them.
21. Our DSSAs provide a safe platform for supervised exchange or supervised visitation services to be carried out and regular updates are provided back to the Courts for them to assess if parties need to continue with supervised visitation or are able to handle custody/access matters on their own. Some families may require such services even after divorce proceedings have concluded.
22. This was the case for Mark and Wendy, who divorced four years ago but still continued to struggle to coparent their two young sons. The boys lived with Mark as Wendy travels extensively for work. Supervised visitation sessions were ordered by the Court as Mark would raise allegations of child abuse, whenever Wendy tried to have access with the boys. Recently, Mark found a new partner, who has been a good surrogate mother to the boys. At a supervised visitation session, the boys started kicking Wendy and hurling vulgarities at her, their mother. The counsellor decided to schedule play therapy sessions for the two boys to better understand the change in their behaviours. The counsellor discovered that the boys felt triangulated in their parents’ conflict, especially when coaxed to behave in certain ways in the hope that Wendy would stop asking for child access. Following multiple counselling sessions with the family, the two young boys are now able to resume a meaningful relationship with Wendy. I do wonder though, whether there is a longer term impact on the children, as a result of what the father has done.
23. Moving forward, we will continue to work with the Courts and channel our efforts towards empowering parties to resolve their matters early and amicably. We will also work with stakeholders to increase awareness and avenues of legal assistance available for family matters.
(B) Collaborative Interdisciplinary Multi-Agency Ecosystem
24. We also hope to encourage deeper collaboration between members of the family bar and the social service sector. Often times, the issues a family faces require a multi-disciplinary, multi-prong approach to help them resolve it and move ahead in their lives. In fact it’s not often times, it’s always. As no two families are alike, the solutions derived have to be tailored to the needs and concerns of each family. I think it is important for us to remember as individuals, we have many multi-dimensional issues which affect us.
25. One key example of a robust interdisciplinary partnership is the National Family Violence Networking System (NFVNS), which was established in 1996. It embodies the multi-sectoral and integrated collaboration to provide multiple access points for victims seeking help. This system links the Courts, Police, prisons, hospitals, social service agencies and MSF to provide a tighter network of support for families affected by violence.
26. Research has shown clearly, as described earlier by Chief Justice, children affected by violence, whether as victims or witnesses, experience significant negative impact to their physical, psychological, and emotional well-being and functioning. There will be lifelong repercussions, sometimes even spanning across generations.
27. When making protection orders, Courts can order counselling to support victims and perpetrators. Our community-based specialist agencies collaborate with Courts and MSF for this recovery and rehabilitation process. Trained professionals work together with the perpetrators to develop alternative ways to expressing themselves, while ensuring the safety of their loved ones. Making an early referral to the appropriate professionals can help to avert harm. In some cases, early referrals have actually improved family relationships.
(C) Mindset shift and New Skills for the Family Bar
28. To foster such an eco-system, there needs to be a change in mindset amongst lawyers, amongst social service professionals on how best to address and understand family issues, and it is heartening to note that the 3rd law school, the Singapore University of Social Sciences (or SUSS), will require its students to take a course on social services in Singapore, in addition to its law modules. I would encourage students with an interest in family law to seek out attachments with social service organisations, and to gain a more holistic understanding of families and the needs they might have. Similarly, social workers undergoing their courses, would also benefit from familiarising themselves with the law.
29. Many family law practitioners are also accredited mediators, collaborative family law practitioners, and parenting coordinators. Such training provides additional and valuable skills in one’s repertoire to complement your legal knowledge.
30. However, when the issues faced by the client are beyond your skillsets, we should not shy away from advising their client to attend counselling, approach a mental health professional or receive some form of therapeutic treatment to deal with the root issue.
31. For example, in cases involving marital infidelity where one party is feeling very bitter towards the other for the betrayal, it would be difficult for them to work effectively to coparent their child when there is unresolved anger, bitterness and mistrust between them.
32. In these situations, I think a courtroom is not necessarily the place to address the parties’ underlying emotional issues. In such cases, a counsellor who provides a listening ear and is able to process the myriad of emotions a client is facing, and would in fact, be the more suitable person to work with the client to restore his or her own emotional well-being. Only when the client is in a healthier state of mind and well-being, would he or she then be able to also think rationally on what would be in the best interest of the child.
33. Platforms such as this Forum provide networking opportunities between family practitioners from different sectors. Learning from each other allows us to broaden our understanding of various aspects of family related work and services.
34. I myself have a number of lawyers who volunteer regularly in my constituency, and the feedback from them, and many other lawyers involved in ground volunteer work, whether in the legal field or otherwise, is that they find it meaningful and a good way to stay grounded, and also to utilise their legal expertise to do good. In helping on the social front with some of these families, it also helps them better appreciate the stress source that many of these families face.
35. I believe that volunteering regularly allows them to better understand and also befriend those whom they are assisting and over time, they get to see how their ongoing efforts positively impacts the lives of others and this is what spurs many of them to continue helping. I hope that in our effort to promote volunteerism as part of the SG cares effort, more law firms and individuals can consider participating in these volunteer efforts. It makes a difference to not only those whom we are helping, but I think we are at the same time, having an impact on ourselves and as we change, I think collectively we begin to build a very different society and I believe that the experiences you gain, will have a tremendous impact on your practice as lawyers.
36. In conclusion, dealing with family-related issues involves a three-layered approach. At the first level, the state intervenes because as a nation we do have to care for each other. The social safety net is important to restore our relationships, to repair our social fabric.
37. Under that layer, we rely on the community, working in partnership to establish and facilitate support structures. Specialists with deep expertise, working across silos, come in to assist each other and each family holistically. At the same time, relatives, neighbours and friends need to anchor rehabilitation and healing for the family.
38 At the core of the effort, however, is the ability of the individual, to respond, to heal and to grow as they experience the various interventions whether in court or in the community.
39 Most of us working in this area of assisting families do so because we recognise the intrinsic value of families, its importance to society and the impact it has on future generation of Singaporeans, who will one day also raise families of their own. Breaking cycles of familial conflict is absolutely necessary to protect our families and children. Even if parents are no longer be married to each other or living together, they still remain parents of precious children.
40. The family justice ecosystem which I have outlined and as Chief Justice has shared, cannot be realised without the full spectrum of professionals working together to serve these families who are in distress or in conflict. Let us also acknowledge that they have the ability to heal, to grow and thrive if the family justice ecosystem they encounter becomes a channel of support and empowerment for them, and if we as individuals care enough to make that difference.
41. I wish each of you a fruitful and exciting time of learning at this Forum. Thank you very much.